The World Health Organization (WHO) announced this week that it will no longer consider being transgender a mental illness, a move that it hopes will combat stigma.
Previously, the WHO had coded “gender incongruence” (better known as gender dysphoria) as a mental illness in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) catalog. It’s now listed under a newly created chapter on sexual health conditions.
Gender dysphoria happens when there’s a conflict between the sex a person is assigned at birth and how they actually experience gender.
The ICD is a hugely influential document that’s used for guidance by health agencies around the world. It sets the standard for the classification of diseases and affects everything from health budgets to where research dollars are spent.
The hope, according to the WHO, is that this move will help combat stigma and discrimination faced by transgender people.
“It was taken out of mental health disorders because we had better understanding that this wasn’t actually a mental health condition and leaving it there was causing stigma,” said Dr. Lale Say, the coordinator of the WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research, in a video posted on YouTube.
“So in order to reduce the stigma while also ensuring access to necessary health interventions, this was placed to a different chapter,” she said.
Transgender Europe hailed the change. “This is a historic achievement the global trans community has been fighting for over many years,” they said in a statement. “It sets the fundament for a new era of reparation for done injustice and celebration of gender diversity.”
“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,” Executive Director Julia Ehrt, said in a statement.
Remaining in the ICD in its new chapter means gender dysphoria is still coded as a health issue, so people who are transgender should still be able to get health care, said Dr. Say. But given the barriers transgender people face when accessing health care, that may not be of great comfort.
Although it’s a big move for the WHO, other organizations still classify gender dysphoria as a mental illness. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the gold standard in the US for mental health diagnoses and still lists gender dysphoria as a mental health condition.
It does, however, make the distinction that gender dysphoria is the distress caused by gender identity issues, not gender nonconformity itself. The most recent version, DSM-5, was updated in 2013 after a 14-year review process; the manual is only changed after extensive research and debate. For example, homosexuality was also listed in the DSM until the 1970s.