Amid anti-trans legislation, arguments over gender-neutral bathrooms and high levels of violence against the trans community, it’s an extremely challenging time to be trans or queer. And with historical barriers and biases among health care providers, it can be scary for trans folks to pursue mental health treatment.
But Jack Bartel, a trans clinical psychologist at Included Health in Florida, stressed that the mental health field is becoming more educated about trans mental health needs.
“There are mental health providers that do care [and] do know about trans people,” he said.
Bartel stressed that everyone is entitled to proper mental health care and there are many ways to get the support you deserve. Here, experts share how to find a therapist who focuses on trans mental health.
Talk to a number of mental health providers to find your best fit.
Therapist Kayti Protos, founder of Rainbow Resiliency, a Connecticut mental health practice by and for members of the queer and trans community, said that you should think of finding the right mental health provider like you’d think about finding a good pair of shoes. The first pair may not fit, and that’s OK. You may need to do some research to find the style, size and brand that’s right for you.
“If possible, talk with the person, schedule a consult or exchange emails,” Protos said. It’s important to find a provider who is right for you, and, even more so, someone who is gender-affirming and well-versed in trans mental health care.
“I encourage folks to really discern, go dig a little on the person’s website,” she said.
It’s a good idea to look for a provider who has their pronouns displayed on their website, their message of therapy, and, if they aren’t trans themself, is open about any trans-affirming educational trainings they’re taking.
Specifically, look for the word “affirming.”
When it comes to finding a mental health provider, Bartel recommended that trans folks look specifically for the word “affirming.”
“We call it affirmative therapy when we work with the LGBTQ+ community, and that just really means that we’re hearing people,” he said.
In other words, the therapist is not trying to change someone. “We’re affirming who you are, and we’re helping guide you toward who you want to be,” Bartel added.
And look for inclusivity throughout the office.
Bartel stated that any trans-affirming provider will have places to fill out your gender and pronouns on forms, and they’ll also ask you for your gender pronouns when you first meet. Additionally, they’ll share their pronouns with you on their website or during your first call.
If someone is not asking you for your gender pronouns or they’re assuming your gender identity, it’s probably not the best mental health provider for you. Bartel added that, beyond the actual provider, all staff within a mental health office should ask you these questions, too. No one, whether they’re processing your payment or pointing you toward the bathroom, should assume your gender or pronouns.
Bartel added that you should also keep an eye out for subtle hints, like LGBTQ-friendly resources in the lobby or trans-focused books on their bookshelves. This shows the practice is not only saying they’re trans-affirming but showing it, too.
Additionally, a lot of therapists will put equality symbols or other affirming messaging at the bottom of their websites.
When looking for a therapist, find one who is willing to advocate for you.
“Historically, there’s a lot of discrimination and bias [in health care settings] against the trans and queer communities because it’s been pathologized,” Protos said.
And while change is happening throughout the mental health world, that is not the case for all mental health providers and programs. Protos noted that when she refers a trans or nonbinary patient to higher levels of care for mental health — things like intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization and residential or inpatient programs — she is sure to call ahead and screen the program.
Many of these programs are gendered and have things like women’s floors and men’s floors, which, by default, is obviously alienating, she said.
Protos asks questions that ensure her client will be gendered correctly, that their right name will be used and that the facility has protocols to address transphobia among staff and patients.
“It’s taking this standard of care to the next level and being willing to do whatever I can to minimize the harm this person may face in navigating mental health services,” she said.
She stressed that when looking for a mental health provider, find one who does this, too, and don’t be afraid to ask how they handle this situation if they don’t offer up this information on their website or when you meet them.
Turn to programs and databases that cater to trans mental health.
There are specific databases and groups that focus on connecting trans people with affirming mental health providers. Bartel recommended checking GLMA and CenterLink. He added that The Trevor Project has mental health resources, including free resources.
Protos said that the Trans LifeLine is another good option that has free mental health services and a phone line that is available 24/7. She also recommended the Human Rights Campaign’s Healthcare Equity Index, as “they do a rigorous review of providers and hospitals.”
Additionally, the GALAP, an organization that collects the names of providers across the country who will do low-cost or free letter-writing sessions to get trans people the health care they need, is another good place to start. The providers are all folks “who are competent enough to write letters, to advocate on behalf of clients and to help them access whatever care they may want,” Protos said.
You can also use Psychology Today’s search functionality to look up providers who fit your needs by searching for terms like “transgender” or filtering your results to only show nonbinary mental health professionals.
Try local university hospitals or large medical centers
Large medical centers throughout the country often have offerings for trans folks. Bartel noted that Kaiser Permanente, which has locations across the country, Fenway Health in Boston and the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia are all particularly helpful.
Protos added that New York University’s Langone Health is another good place for trans-affirming health care.
In some cases, Planned Parenthood could be a place to go for trans-affirming mental health care, Bartel added. “Some Planned Parenthoods will work with providers in their community” to establish mental health options for trans people, but the level of care you receive may depend on your location, Bartel added.
And rely on word of mouth, too.
According to Bartel, word of mouth and social media can be the best ways to learn about a lot of things, including mental health providers and local mental health programs.
You can ask for recommendations in online forums or social media groups and hear tips (and warnings) firsthand.
“Word of mouth can be really beneficial, especially if you live in a more rural area where you don’t have access to a medical center,” he said.
Lastly, don’t feel discouraged. There are many trans-affirming therapists out there.
The trans community faces stressful barriers when it comes to mental health treatment. This can be seen with things like conversion therapy, the fact that many trans people need to see a mental health provider to be prescribed hormones and the fact that mental health providers need to write letters to surgical providers so trans people can get gender-affirming surgery.
According to Bartel, when it comes to these requirements, it has largely “created this gatekeeper method — I know as a licensed psychologist I had to go [to a mental health provider] in order to get any help. I can write these letters for people and I still had to go.”
When you’re faced with boundaries like this, it can be discouraging to seek out mental health help. But, Bartel stressed, there are many mental health providers who truly care for the trans community and want to do their best to be supportive.
“It’s important that we recognize the history but also educate that mental health is still really important and something you can benefit from,” Bartel said