Trans and Mentally Ill: The Struggles of a College Student

August 30, 2017 in inQueery

I am a queer, trans, mentally ill college student. I struggle with an anxiety disorder and being on the bipolar spectrum.  I try to balance my activism, advocacy and schoolwork with self-care and recharge time, my silver lining.  Some days I can masterfully perform an elaborate dance and navigate the day without issue.  Other times my luck runs out and I fail to execute, running out of energy or hitting a seemingly insurmountable roadblock, shattering my focus.

There is not a point where my mental illness ends and I begin, just as my queerness and gender non-conformity are deeply intertwined with who I am.  There is no separation from these identities and conditions.  They do not dictate who I am, but are simply descriptors and factors which influence the way I experience my life.  People seem to be set on labels, which announce who I am before I get to do it myself. I’m all about using labels for finding community, however I want to emphasize how frustrating it can be to have people’s preconceived ideas projected onto me.  It is incredibly frustrating to feel as though I am representing an entire community when talking to someone with little knowledge on mental illness or being LGBT.  I only know one other trans student attending my school and we couldn’t be more different. She is a trans woman who is a Trump supporter and doesn’t believe in non-binary identities.

I feel like I need to be the perfect example of a queer trans student when in reality it’s not my responsibility to represent all trans people.  That idea actually makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable.  Each person experiences their identities in a different way, these are unique situations which cannot possibly be conveyed through one label.

Shoptaugh, James. Trans and Overwhelmed. Digital image. N.p., 23 July 2017.

Labels often feel constricting, when in fact they can be liberating.  When I first found out there was a word for how I felt about my gender, I was elated.  I wasn’t alone in this experience!  Even when I learned about my anxiety disorder and being on the bipolar spectrum I was happy, because I could use other people’s experiences to help guide me by using their solutions and suggestions to aid me.

I wish people realised that it is possible to live a good life being queer, trans, and mentally ill.  These identities are not a death sentence, and they do not negate my ability to enjoy life.  The stigma around being mentally ill and trans is similar.  Each stigma vilifies me, and makes me out to be something dangerous.  It makes others like me afraid to be who we are, to reach out and receive the help that we need to live the best life we can.  This is what hurts me, the media’s representation of people like me.  The negative portrayal stirs the public’s fears and I end up denied the right to use the bathroom depending on the state I’m in as a result.  The President recently announced that people like me are burdens and aren’t worthy of protecting this nation. I am just some student who is trying to figure out what major to declare next semester.  I’m certainly not up to anything nefarious, and the only thing on my gay agenda for today is to practice my instrument and finish this article.  I deserve equal treatment, and I am not a burden.

Many trans people suffer from anxiety and depression, which is not surprising.  We worry about coming out, being out at work or school, passing, how our voice sounds, dysphoria, HRT and more.  We also worry about the little things; should you correct the cashier who just misgendered you, do you ask your professor to learn “they” pronouns or stick with binary ones, and other small issues. Some of us have to worry about scarier situations, like facing violence from loved ones, strangers, and classmates.  Trans women, especially trans women of color are at a higher risk for facing violence.  Examples of mental illness in the media tend to revolve around trans and mentally ill people being the instigators of violence, which in reality is the opposite of how it really is.  This only furthers the stigma that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, and serves to compound people’s fear of talking about their own mental health issues.  There are dire consequences to the stigma, such as stopping trans people and mentally ill people from seeking help.

We live in a world that is not supportive of people like me, and many are not as lucky as I have been.  According to the National Trans Discrimination Survey, 40% of trans people have attempted suicide, whereas if they have a supportive family they are 83% less likely to commit suicide.  With 40% of homeless youth identifying as LGBT, according to a study done by the Williams Institute, it is imperative that we address ways to provide health care and safe spaces for these youth.  We need to ensure that there are supports in place for those who do not have supportive families so that they get the same opportunities as everyone else.  These issues require more visibility.  A recent step towards this part of the community receiving more attention has been through Youtube star Tyler Oakley.  He has recently launched a series called Chosen Family in which he interviews various members of the LGBT community from all walks of life to learn about their experiences, and to see their chosen families.

Remembering intersectionality and how each person experiences their identities differently is key. With education and more visibility, LGBT individuals with mental illness will hopefully receive the help they need to improve their quality of life.  With medication, as well as coping strategies, and supportive family and friends, people with mental illness can live happy, fulfilling lives.  Our lack of support for trans people and those experiencing mental illness in the U.S. is astounding, and with so many Americans suffering, the lack of progress is appalling.



James Shoptaugh is a Visiting Writer at InQueery.