Higher PTSD, BPD in Transgender vs Cisgender Psych Patients

Transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) individuals with mental illness appear to have higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) compared with their cisgender counterparts, new research shows.

Although mood disorders, depression, and anxiety were the most common diagnoses in both TGD and cisgender patients, “when we compared the diagnostic profiles [of TGD patients] to those of cisgender patients, we found an increased prevalence of PTSD and BPD,” study investigator, Mark Zimmerman, MD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior, Brown University, Rhode Island, told Medscape Medical News.

“What we concluded is that psychiatric programs that wish to treat TGD patients should either have or should develop expertise in treating PTSD and BPD, not just mood and anxiety disorders,” Zimmerman said.

The study was published online September 26 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

‘Piecemeal Literature’

TGD individuals “experience high rates of various forms of psychopathology in general and when compared with cisgender persons,” the investigators note.

They point out that most empirical evidence has relied upon the use of brief, unstructured psychodiagnostic assessment measures and assessment of a “limited constellation of psychiatric symptoms domains,” resulting in a “piecemeal literature wherein each piece of research documents elevations in one—or a few—diagnostic domains.”

Studies pointing to broader psychosocial health variables have often relied upon self-reported measures. In addition, in studies that utilized a structured interview approach, none “used a formal interview procedure to assess psychiatric diagnoses” and most focused only on a “limited number of psychiatric conditions based on self-reports of past diagnosis.”

The goal of the current study was to use semistructured interviews administered by professionals to compare the diagnostic profiles of a samples of TGD and cisgender patients who are presented presenting for treatment at a single naturalistic, clinically acute setting — a partial hospital program.

Zimmerman said that there was an additional motive for the study. “There has been discussion in the field as to whether or not transgender or gender-diverse individuals all have borderline personality disorder, but that hasn’t been our clinical impression.”

Rather, Zimmerman and colleagues believe TGD people “may have had more difficult childhoods and more difficult adjustments in society because of social attitudes and have to deal with that stress, whether it be microaggressions or overt bullying and aggression.” The study was designed to investigate this issue.

In addition, studies conducted in primary care programs in individuals seeking gender-affirming surgery have “reported a limited number of psychiatric diagnoses, but we were wondering whether, among psychiatric patients specifically, there were differences in diagnostic profiles between transgender and gender diverse patients and cisgender patients. If so, what might the implications be for providing care for this population?”

TGD Not Synonymous With Bipolar

To investigate, the researchers administered semistructured diagnostic interviews for DSM-IV disorders to 2212 psychiatric patients (66% cisgender women, 30.8% cisgender men, 3.1% TGD, mean [SD] age 36.7 [14.4] years) presenting to the Rhode Island Hospital Department of Psychiatry Partial Hospital Program between April 2014 and January 2021.

Patients also completed a demographic questionnaire including their assigned sex at birth and their current gender identity.

Most patients (44.9%) were single, followed by 23.5% who were married, 14.1% living in a relationship as if married, 12.0% divorced, 3.6% separated, and 1.9% widowed.

Almost three quarters of participants (73.2%) identified as White, followed by Hispanic (10.7%), Black (6.7%), “other” or a combination of racial/ethnic backgrounds (6.6%), and Asian (2.7%).

There were no differences between cisgender and TGD groups in terms of race or education, but the TGD patients were significantly younger compared with their cisgender counterparts and were significantly more likely to have never been married.

The average number of psychiatric diagnoses in the sample was 3.05 (1.73), with TGD patients having a larger number of psychiatric diagnoses than did their cisgender peers (an average of 3.54 ± 1.88 vs 3.04 ± 1.72, respectively; t = 2.37; P = .02).

Major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) were the most common disorders among both cisgender and TGD patients. However, after controlling for age, the researchers found that TGD patients were significantly more likely than were the cisgender patients to be diagnosed with PTSD and BPD (both Ps < .05)




OR (95% CI)




0.62 (0.38-1.01)




1.06 (0.65-1.72)




1.82 (1.11-2.98)




1.87 (1.12-3.11)

“Of note, only about one-third of the TGD individuals were diagnosed with BPD, so it is important to realize that transgender or gender-diverse identity is not synonymous with BPD, as some have suggested,” noted Zimmerman, who is also the director of the Outpatient Division at the Partial Hospital Program, Rhode Island Hospital.

A Representative Sample?

Commenting for Medscape Medical NewsJack Drescher, MD, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and clinical professor of psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, called the findings “interesting” but noted that a limitation of the study is that it included “a patient population with likely more severe psychiatric illness, since they were all day hospital patients.”

The question is whether similar findings would be obtained in a less severely ill population, said Drescher, who is also a senior consulting analyst for sexuality and gender at Columbia University and was not involved with the study. “The patients in the study may not be representative of the general population, either cisgender or transgender.”

Drescher was “not surprised” by the finding regarding PTSD because the finding “is consistent with our understanding of the kinds of traumas that transgender people go through in day-to-day life.”

He noted that some people misunderstand the diagnostic criterion in BPD of identity confusion and think that because people with gender dysphoria may be confused about their identity, it means that all people who are transgender have borderline personality disorder, “but that’s not true.”

Zimmerman agreed. “The vast majority of individuals with BPD do not have a transgender or gender-diverse identity, and TGD should not be equated with BPD,” he said.

No source of study funding. Zimmerman and co-authors and Drescher report no relevant financial relationships.

J Clin Psychiatry. Published online September 26, 2022. Abstract

Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LSW is a freelance writer with a counseling practice in Teaneck, NJ. She is a regular contributor to numerous medical publications, including Medscape and WebMD, and is the author of several consumer-oriented health books as well as Behind the Burqa: Our Lives in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom (the memoir of two brave Afghan sisters who told her story).

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