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University misrepresented study by claiming puberty blockers help teens’ mental health

University of Washington edits website after accusations researchers misrepresented study on puberty blockers for trans, nonbinary teens

The University of Washington this week edited online materials after accusations the school misrepresented the results of a study of the effects of puberty blockers on transgender and nonbinary teens in an attempt to suggest their mental health improved thanks to such treatment.

The edits were made after independent journalist Jesse Singal looked deeper into the study’s numbers and didn’t find anything to suggest the mental health of the transgender and nonbinary teens improved over the course of the study.

Campus spokesperson Victor Balta told The College Fix: “Some language on the online UW Medicine Newsroom post about this research has been updated below to more directly reflect the findings as reported in the study.”

“This study was accepted and published in the peer-reviewed JAMA Network Open on February 25, 2022, and we will let the report and its findings speak for itself,” he said via email.

The study, “Mental Health Outcomes in Transgender and Nonbinary Youths Receiving Gender-Affirming Care,” sought to find out whether the use of puberty blockers, also known as “gender affirming medicine,” helped the mental health of transgender or nonbinary teens.

According to materials accompanying the February release of the study in JAMA Network Open, the students who received gender affirming medicine had significantly better mental health outcomes at the end of the study than they did at the beginning.

The news release accompanying the study’s publication boasted that “UW Medicine researchers recently found that gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary adolescents caused rates of depression to plummet.”

Release of the study was accompanied by a video that claims researchers found “gender-affirming care made a big difference in reducing depression levels for transgender youth.”

But Singal, an independent watchdog who investigated the study’s numbers, didn’t find data within the study to back up those claims.

“The kids who took puberty blockers or hormones experienced no statistically significant mental health improvement during the study,” Singal writes. “The claim that they did improve, which was presented to the public in the study itself, in publicity materials, and on social media (repeatedly) by one of the authors, is false.”

According to the study’s data, 57 percent of the teenagers who entered the study and began puberty blockers reported having “moderate to severe depression.” By the end of the 12-month study, 56 percent of the subjects reported having moderate to severe depression, virtually no change from before.

Further, at the beginning of the study, 57 percent of the subjects provided puberty blockers reported having “moderate to severe anxiety.” Twelve months later, 51 percent reported having moderate to severe anxiety.

Among subjects who received puberty blockers, the number who reported “suicidal thoughts” dropped slightly, from 43 percent to 37 percent over the 12-month period.

Nonetheless, the study’s authors claimed the students receiving gender affirming medicine “experienced a 60% decrease in baseline depression and a 73% reduction in baseline suicidality over the course of 12 months.”

But Singal found that the researchers had misrepresented the results of the study by comparing the results of the subjects who had gone on puberty blockers — which stayed relatively constant — with subjects that had not, which got worse over the 12 months.

In other words, the researchers claimed the subjects who received treatment got better simply because the subjects who didn’t receive treatment got worse.

“‘Mental health problems plummeted among kids who went on X’ is a very different claim than ‘Kids who went on X didn’t experience improved mental health, but had better outcomes compared to kids who didn’t go on X,’” wrote Singal.

Singal talked to one of the researchers who preferred to remain anonymous, but confirmed his suspicions: “So the action here, as the researcher admits, comes not from the kids in the treatment group getting better, but rather from the kids in the comparison group getting worse.”

But the claim that the students who did not go on puberty blockers or hormones declined in mental health also has problems.

According to the researchers’ data, only 12 of the 69 kids, 17.4 percent, who were treated left the study, while 28 of the 35 kids, 80 percent, who weren’t treated left the study. Singal argues this attrition disparity can drastically skew the comparative rates presented within the study.

For example, the vast majority of kids in the “control” group may have dropped out of the study because their feelings of gender dysphoria weren’t as strong as others. If this is the case, the “healthier” teens leaving the data set will cause the kids with more mental health problems to grow as a percentage of study subjects.

In other words, the subjects that didn’t receive treatment may not have gotten worse, it just appears that way because the ones with fewer mental health problems chose to leave the study.

“If the dropouts had fairly good mental health, that could give the false appearance of the group ‘worsening’ on average, even if individual members of the group aren’t actually worsening,” Singal writes.

Nonetheless, the UW Medicine Newsroom website still claims kids receiving treatment performed better than those who did not.

“In study findings published in JAMA Network Open, the investigators reported that adolescents and young adults who received puberty blockers or gender-affirming hormones had 60% lower odds of depression and 73% lower odds of self-harm or suicidal thoughts,” the website now reads.

Singal told The College Fix he doesn’t think the university’s edits are adequate.

“I think it’s ambiguous but still misleading because they don’t mention the ‘comparison’ group,” he said.

“On the other hand, the problem with mentioning the ‘comparison’ group was it wasn’t really a comparison group — for the reasons I lay out in my piece, you can’t fairly compare the kids who did and didn’t go on blockers or hormones in this article. My sense is the average, untrained reader will read the sentence still on the website and interpret it as communicating improvement on the part of kids who went on hormones and blockers, which wasn’t what happened.”

MORE: Princeton’s health plan pays for abortions and ‘transgender surgery’

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author
Senior Reporter
Christian focuses on investigative, enterprise and analysis reporting. He is the author of "1916: The Blog" and has spent time as a political columnist at USA Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and National Review Online. His op-eds have been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, City Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has also been a frequent guest on political television and radio shows. He holds a master’s degree in political science from Marquette University and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.