In response to the suicide of Ohio transgender teen Leelah Alcorn on Dec. 28, mental health care provider Central Clinic introduced the Transgender Wellness Program to serve the transgender community.
Alcorn’s suicide created a spotlight for the need for more trans-friendly mental health care, especially in the Cincinnati area, according to Evelyn Heflin, the wellness program’s coordinator.
“There is definitely a need in the [trans] community because there are other organizations that do support groups, but there aren’t a whole lot of resources for people to be able to just go and see a therapist who is familiar with transgender issues and the needs of the transgender community,” Heflin said.
Any Ohio resident enrolled in Medicaid who identifies as transgender, gender-queer, gender non-conforming or is questioning their transgender nature is eligible for the program.
While the main component of the program provides mental health therapy for clients, services can also be extended to help clients see a psychiatrist. The program also aims to help connect clients to agencies with trans-friendly services.
“There are a couple different needs assessment studies that have been done on the past couple of years that look at trans-people as they try to connect with a healthcare provider,” Heflin said. “A lot of them tend to be met with different levels of discrimination from the providers not giving them services to being harassed.”
The program aims to eliminate any discrimination through connecting clients with trans-friendly services, as not many federal or state laws exist to protect people from discrimination based on gender identity.
“One of the biggest challenges that a lot of trans-people face is the whole process of coming out and getting connected to services,” Heflin said.
The Transgender Wellness Program can help clients with the multitude of barriers trans-people may face, such as being rejected by family and friends after coming out.
“One of the things that people are trying to work towards is trying to give transgender people a safe space where they can be themselves and work through any additional things that are going on in their life,” Heflin said.
T. N. Vaught, program coordinator for the University of Cincinnati's LGBTQ Center, said that while this is a necessary step, more can be done.
Vaught, who identifies as gender-queer, using the pronouns they, them and their, expressed the discomfort transgender individuals feel in gender-specific areas.
“The students that I have spoken with are trying to figure how to navigate very gendered spaces,” Vaught said. “Some of them are still a part of their parents’ insurance or are on Student Health Insurance, which, as of last year, does not offer any coverage for any transition-related procedures or medication.”
Heflin said there are not many programs that offer mental health services to transgender people — only 12 similar programs exist in the United States. However, there are many agencies dedicated to connecting people with the trans community and providing transgender advocacy work.
Ellen Rielag, a fourth-year health-promotion education student and president of UC Feminists laments the lack of provided help for transgender individuals.
“The [Transgender Wellness] program is absolutely essential,” Rielag said. “We do need to have a safe space for them to come and get the medical and health benefits that they need because there are so few spaces where medical professionals are trained. They don’t have the expertise to treat people who are transgender.”
Heflin named Heartland Trans Wellness as another local resource for the transgender community. Located in Cincinnati, the agency offers support groups to anyone who identifies under the trans umbrella and their allies. Heflin said Heartland Trans Wellness was instrumental in bringing the transgender community together after Alcorn’s death.
“It really gives hope and incentive that we are progressing, that we are changing,” Rielag said.
Vaught also stresses the importance of the UC community in creating an environment of inclusion and acceptance both socially and medically.
“The transgender community, both here at UC and in general, is hurt, tired, and overwhelmed, but we are also resilient and fierce,” Vaught said. “We need allies to help raise our voice because although we are small in numbers, our issues are very real. We need the UC community to step back and critically evaluate policies, procedures, and their approach to diversity.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Central Clinic is affiliated with the University of Cincinnati. There is no affiliation between Central Clinic and UC.