Increasing access to gender-affirming care saves lives

Clinical psychologist Jennifer Petro presents about issues surrounding mental health and societal acceptance of transgender individuals in the Rainbow Center (Maggie Chafouleas/The Daily Campus

As a part of Suicide Prevention Week, Jennifer Petro, a counselor at Counseling and Mental Health Services, gave a lecture in the Rainbow Center to teach people about the role of the mental heathcare provider in expanding access to gender-affirming medical care for transgender people. Her talk, entitled “Mental Health Allyship,” focused on explaining how mental healthcare providers work with transgender people to get them access to gender-affirming medical care and how greater access to this care would reduce the suicide rate among transgender people.

While removing the stigma of being transgender and reducing the discrimination and oppression of transgender individuals helps to lower their suicide rate, Petro stated that increased access to gender-affirming medical care would help decrease that rate even more. Such care includes hormone therapy and/or surgery. While hormone therapy usually does not require the individual seeking treatment to obtain a letter from a mental health professional, surgery does. Therefore, reduced access to mental healthcare might pose a barrier to transgender individuals seeking surgery.

If a transgender person is able to access mental healthcare, their counselor must perform an assessment of the person to make sure that they are able to receive gender-affirming medical treatment.

“It’s important to recognize that if you’re in the mental health field, to realize what that means, that oftentimes people are coming in to appointments feeling like I am in the way of a process, and I kind of am, so I have to be really thoughtful about how to provide an assessment that is welcoming and also facilitative of what it is the person is looking to get,” Petro said of her role as a counselor.

For transgender people to be able to receive medical care, they must meet the standards set by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). They must exhibit “persistent, well-documented gender dysphoria,” have the capacity “to make fully-informed decisions and consent to treatment,” and be able to control other significant mental health concerns “reasonably well.”

“I really encourage people to read through [the WPATH Standards of Care] because this is what your medical provider is going to be aware of” Petro said.

Assuming that a transgender person meets these standards, their counselor will write them a letter to give to their medical healthcare provider detailing the outcome of their assessment and the duration of the work that the counselor has done with this person, an explanation that the criteria are met and a statement that the individual has been informed about and given their consent to medical treatments.

Lecture attendees found the presentation informative and said that it thoroughly described the role of the mental health care provider in helping transgender individuals.

Assistant Dean of Students Paula Wilmot said that she attended because she wanted to learn about how care for transgender people could be improved beyond social support. Wilmot said that she learned about how insurance coverage for gender-affirming surgeries needs to be expanded, as well as how the mental health provider plays a big role in allowing a transgender person to obtain a surgical procedure.

Petro finished her lecture by reiterating the fact that it is everyone’s responsibility to prevent suicide.

“I think it’s really important to think about suicide prevention being everybody’s business,” Petro said.


Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu.