Call me by my name: How name changes can affect mental health

Key Takeaways

  • Mental health practitioners point to affirming name changes as key to positive mental health for trans and gender-diverse people.
  • Data support a reduced incidence of negative mental health effects when gender markers and names are changed by those who wish to.

“What’s in a name? What we call a rose, by any other name would smell sweet.”

Changing a name is often a major point in the coming-out process for trans and gender-diverse people, and conversations around the importance of a name to one’s identity are universal.

Mental health professionals and those who provide gender-affirming care agree that the act of changing your name to something that better matches who you perceive yourself to be is a cornerstone of mental health care for these individuals, and should not be trivialized. . ignore

The importance of a name

Dr. Aud Henin, PhD, is co-director of the Pediatric Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program for Children at Massachusetts General Hospital. He affirms that names are a key part of a person seeking to understand their changing relationship to gender

“Names are important to our identity, and they’re often the first thing people see on paper. And so is being able to change your name to something that reflects your identity,” she says.

Dr. Aud Henin, Ph.D

It’s important to remember that even for children and teenagers, before they come out and tell other people, they’ve been thinking about it for a long time…and it’s not unusual for children or teenagers to already recognize their name (before an appointment). .

— Dr. Aud Henin, Ph.D

Henin works with people under 25, and says finding a name that fits well varies significantly depending on a number of factors, including a person’s age.

For younger children, a parent may have input, but for others, it’s a long process that likely begins long before treatment is effective.

“It’s important to remember that even for children and teenagers, before they come out and tell other people, they’ve been thinking about it for a long time. And so, while it may seem like something new to other people, it’s not new to them. And so it’s not unusual for babies or teenagers to have their names already marked (before an appointment).

Recent research SSM Population Health This points to the fact that legal changes to name and gender markers are associated with lower rates of various mental health effects, including depression and anxiety.

Outside of the research world, essays by authors such as Mackenzie Casalino and RC Woodmus show the life-changing value of a name change.

Deadnaming: What are the implications?

It’s almost impossible to talk about name change in trans and gender nonconforming care without talking about the concept of deadnaming—where a person’s previous name is used, whether intentionally or not.

David Cato, LCSW, TCT, SEP, who is an associate clinical director of trauma services at Sierra Tucson and a certified transgender care therapist, says that people who change their names have different associations with names they no longer use.

For some, changing their name is a new beginning. Cato notes, “There are people who really feel that they’ve rejected that personality, they call it a dead name, which basically means that the person has died and they’ve basically been reborn as a new person, almost a little reincarnation. .”

For others, he said, it’s more complicated.

“I’ve also worked with trans and non-binary people who say they respect the name they were given at birth, and yet, even though they’ve changed their name and their pronouns are different from the gender they were assigned (at birth) , it still has some kind of meaning for them.”

David Cato, LCSW

If you feel that a certain name or a gender different from the one you’ve been assigned resonates with you, it’s about going for it and allowing yourself to be who you are.

— David Cato, LCSW

In terms of the impact of deadnaming, Henin says that the context of naming someone dead can vary — it’s accidentally named without malice versus being intentionally invalidated by non-certain family members, for example — the real-world consequences can be serious from a mental health perspective.

“We spend a lot of time, if and when it happens, talking about the impact on the individual. How can they deal with it, what do they want to do to try to deal with it in the future, because it can be so, so painful right now and so difficult to solve,” she says.

Henin helps patients work with tools including self-soothing techniques, mindfulness techniques, as well as having a network of people to reach out to for what Henin calls “run interference.”

“I think part of what makes the job so difficult is that a transgender or gender-diverse person has to constantly call everyone out. And we tend to do that in session…but we ask other people to do it for you in a low-key, but consistent way to share the burden.”

Building a culture of care

So, what does care look like for someone looking to change their name? For one, family can play a key role during a transition like a name change.

For many trans and gender-variant people, changing names on cards can feel strained in relationships with parents and siblings.

Henin says families who work through their own concerns about a name change better prepare them to be a good support system.

“We recognize that parents, carers and families have their own processes of understanding and thinking about all of this. And so we try to provide them with resources so that they can go through their own process without imposing it on the child,” she explains.

However, biological family is not the only support that can be provided.

Chosen families—those who take on family roles outside of the traditional family tree—may include someone who can drive people to appointments, schedule regular mental health checkups, or perform any number of other support functions.

At the end of the day, Cato says name changes are an important way to settle into ourselves in a way that wasn’t possible before.

“If you feel that a certain name or a gender different from the one you’ve been assigned resonates with you, it’s about going for it and allowing yourself to be who you are.”

What does this mean for you?

While the prospect of a name change can be daunting, there is a distinct possibility that making one (especially if you’re trans and/or gender-queer) will lead to improved mental health.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the information contained in our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

  1. Restar, A, Jin, H, Breslow, A, et al. Legal gender markers and name changes are associated with less negative emotional reactions to gender-based mistreatment and improved mental health outcomes among trans populations. SSM Popul Health. 2020;11:100595. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2020.100595

By John Loeppky

John Loepki is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who writes about disability and health for a variety of outlets.

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