Transgender People Are Not Mentally Ill, World Health Organization Decrees

The logo of the World Health Organization is pictured on the facade of the WHO headquarters on October 24, 2017 in Geneva. (Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

The logo of the World Health Organization is pictured on the facade of the WHO headquarters on October 24, 2017 in Geneva. (Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

The term the World Health Organization uses to describe transgender people — “gender incongruence” — is being moved to the panel’s sexual health chapter from its mental disorders chapter, the WHO’s legislative body has voted.

The new classification is expected to improve social acceptance among transgender people while still making important health resources available, the United Nations health agency said last year in announcing the intended change.

The new standard of classification appears in the 11th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11), which was adopted Saturday by the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. It will go into effect on January 1, 2022.

The WHO uses gender incongruence to describe people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth.

The phrase “was taken out from the mental health disorders because we had a better understanding that this wasn’t actually a mental health condition, and leaving it there was causing stigma,” Dr. Lale Say, coordinator of WHO’s Adolescents and at-Risk Populations team, said last June. “So, in order to reduce the stigma while also ensuring access to necessary health interventions, this was placed in a different chapter.”

LGBT groups hailed the move at that time.

“This is the result of tremendous effort by trans and gender diverse activists from around the world to insist on our humanity, and I am elated that the WHO agrees that gender identity is not a mental illness,” Julia Ehrt, then-executive director of Transgender Europe, said last year.

“Until a few years ago, removing pathologizing categories affecting trans and gender diverse people from the ICD-10 list of mental disorders seemed impossible. Today, we know that full depathologization can be achieved and will be achieved in our lifetime,” the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association said last week in a statement. Ehrt is now that group’s program director.

The WHO does not expect the ICD change to affect transgender people’s need for health care, but by reducing social stigmas, more people might be encouraged to seek treatment, Say said last year.

In its new description of gender incongruence, the WHO said, “Gender variant behavior and preferences alone are not a basis” for diagnosing someone’s mental health.

This is not the first time the ICD has changed a classification related to sexuality. In 1990, the WHO declared that “sexual orientation alone is not to be regarded as a disorder.”

Besides acting as the foundation for global health statistics and trends, the ICD provides a standard for research and clinical purposes and helps in the reporting and defining diseases, disorders and other health conditions. It also “captures factors influencing health, or external causes of mortality and morbidity, providing an holistic look at every aspect of life that can affect health,” the WHO said in a statement.

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