More than five times as many Sheffield children have been referred to an NHS service for gender issues in the last year, new figures have revealed.
A Freedom of Information request by The Star has revealed 17 children were referred by Sheffield doctors in 2015/16 for specialist support and treatment for gender dysphoria – a condition where a person experiences confusion or distress because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity.
The figure has substantially increased from the three city children referred to The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in 2014/15 – and is more than double the total number of Sheffield children referred to the service in the preceding four years put together.
Similar rises have been recorded across South Yorkshire, with 40 referrals across the county in 2015/16 compared to 12 the year before.
More accepting attitudes towards children with gender identity issues is helping to drive the ‘unprecedented rise’ in referrals, a psychologist has said.
New figures reveal rocketing numbers of children across South Yorkshire being referred by doctors to The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust’s Gender Identity Development Service, which helps children who feel they are trapped in the wrong body.
Many of the youngsters who are referred are in ‘real distress’ about their feelings towards whether they are a boy or a girl.
Some of these young people may go on to identify as transgender or gender variant, while others may come to identify themselves as boys, girls or people who are simply different.
In Sheffield, 17 children were referred to the trust in 2015/16 – more than double the four previous years combined.
A similar increase in Doncaster meant seven children were referred last year compared to two in the previous year, with 11 children referred in Barnsley compared to two in the preceding 12 months.
In Rotherham, the number of referrals remained the same at five.
Similar figures were recorded across the whole Yorkshire and Humber region, with 133 cases last year compared to 42 in 2014/15.
Of these, the youngest child to be referred was seven years old.
Across the Yorkshire region in the past year, 83 children who were born female were referred to the service along with 50 children born as boys.
The figures also echo the national picture which saw referrals go from 697 in 2014/15 to 1,419 in 2015/16.
Polly Carmichael, gender identity development service director and consultant clinical psychologist at the trust, said: “We can’t identify a single reason for the increase, but we have certainly seen a cultural shift and thankfully more acceptance in terms of how we think about gender and greater recognition of transgender and gender variant people.
“While we’re seeing an unprecedented rise in referrals to the service – we have to keep this in perspective.
“Against current census data, around 0.01 per cent or one in 10,000 young people, are referred to our highly specialised service.
“Not all of those will fulfil the criteria for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and not all of those will decide to transition.”
She added: “All of the young people we see here have one thing in common – they are experiencing difficulties with their gender identity. Aside from that, for every young person and family we see, the circumstances and related issues are all very different. As are the feelings they have about their gender identity, feelings which often evolve over time.
“The work we do here is highly specialist and the staff who see the young people are highly qualified.
“It’s our role to provide a safe, therapeutic space where people can speak to a range of professionals about their circumstances. We do this without judgement. We are currently working hard to recruit more staff and train them up to meet the demand for our service and ensure we are able to see young people within reasonable timescales.
“We see young people who, often, are experiencing real distress. Our multi-disciplinary team including psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists and family therapists is here to conduct in depth assessments to provide them with the best possible support.
“Sometimes there is a perception that the service’s primary purpose is to prescribe drugs. This is not the case. When young people first attend the service we spend time with them and their families and hear how they are doing in general, as well as talking more specifically about their gender.
“It is not the case that all of the young people who attend the service choose to undertake physical treatments, far from it. For a small number of young people physical treatments can be very helpful to reduce the real distress they experience around their gender.
“Every individual is different, every journey is different, there are no pre-determined diagnoses or fixed outcomes and physical intervention is not the focus of our under-18s service. Our service allows young people and families to explore the best way forward as individuals, as they develop.”
The trust has clinics in Leeds and London, with the Gender Identity Development Service established in 1989.
It provides specialist help to young people and their families at an earlier stage - seeing children up to the age of 18 who are experiencing difficulties in the development of gender identity.
A trust spokesman said: “Many adults with gender identity problems describe difficulties in childhood.
“Often they complain of having been very unhappy children and teenagers and that their feelings had not been understood early enough by parents and professionals.
“As adult gender identity has its roots in infancy, childhood and adolescence, it can be beneficial to provide specialist help to young people and their families at an early stage.
“We see children and adolescents who are experiencing difficulties in the development of gender identity, and their families or carers.
“This includes children who are unhappy about their assigned sex and wish to belong to the other one. Some may be boys who feel or believe they are girls and vice versa; others may show a strong preference for playing with toys mostly used by the other sex, for instance, a boy who mostly plays with dolls. Some children feel comfortable only when playing with peers of the other sex, or may cross dress from time to time.
“Some adolescents and their families or carers can experience crisis over problems of gender identity which can result in lasting distress for both the young person and their family or carers. We consider issues of gender identity in the context of normal developmental processes as a child moves from infancy to childhood and into early and later adolescence.
“The aims of the service are to support the different strands of development by exploring the nature and characteristics of the child’s or young person’s gender identity and how concerns about gender may be affecting other areas of development. We think that relationships are as important as other factors in contributing to any difficulties the child or young person may experience. Therefore we pay attention to what is happening within the child’s/adolescent’s relationships with the family, school and other social agencies.”