A new study published in PLOS One investigated the consequences of anti-transgender rights legislation on internet searches of suicide or depression. Researchers discovered that when states and local governments passed anti-transgender bills, suicide and depression searches increased. If an anti-transgender bill was legislatively defeated, the number of searches related to these topics decreased. Finally, there was no significant difference in internet searches when legislators were debating bills
In recent years many states have taken up laws intended to strip rights from transgender individuals. These laws are intended to restrict access to health care and bathrooms, but George Cunningham and colleagues also recognized there is a secondary effect. Anti-transgender laws bring a spotlight to the community and can increase feelings of stigmatization.
This concept is defined in the research as “People who are stigmatized have characteristics (or others believe that possess) characteristics that mark them as different than others and therefore devalued.” Stigma can lead to stress and decreased self-esteem, making people vulnerable to mental illness.
Stigmatization can emerge from friends, family, and community structures. Anti-transgender laws serve as structural components of stigmatization, and in this regard, they open the door to more community-based discrimination and hate crimes. Prior research has found interpersonal and structural stress connected to more mental illness and higher rates of alcoholism. Cunningham and colleagues were looking for evidence in internet searches that the structural stigma of anti-transgender laws had serious consequences for mental health.
The research team used Google searches from July 2019 to July 2020 in all 50 states to collect data. They looked for searches of the words “suicide” and “depression.” Searches for these two words were compared with a commonly searched-for word, “weather.” Within 52 weeks of data, they utilized different periods depending on where bills were in the legislative process. The research team divided the process into “Introduced,” “Committee,” and either “Passed” or “Failed.”
Statistical analysis of this data revealed that when bills were in the introduction or committee phases, there were no differences between the search terms. This was also true of anti-transgender legislation that failed to pass. However, when an anti-legislation bill was made law, internet searches for suicide or depression within that state increased between 13 and 17 percent.
In addition, the research team compared these responses to the known LGBTQ population in the state. The greater the population density of LGBTQ individuals, the higher the searches of “suicide,” in particular.
Cunningham and colleagues recognize there are some limitations to the study. First, they do not know what the searches were actually looking for; it cannot be concluded it was always for intent to harm themselves. In addition, their work only spanned a year; a longer study would provide more robust evidence.
The research team feels their findings are important to understand the consequences and risks of passing anti-transgender laws. In their words, “Our findings suggest that mental health of people in a state is threatened not just by the occurrence of discriminatory acts, but to the passage of stigmatizing laws as well, and suggests that the mental health interventions used already should be adapted to response to anti-trans legislation. Given that most of the anti-trans bills on the docket today are addressing the rights of students, teachers, and support providers in the school community should be particularly aware of this need.”
The study, “Anti-transgender rights legislation and internet searches pertaining to depression and suicide”, was authored by George B. Cunningham, Nicholas M. Watanabe, Erin Buzuvis.