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COVID-19 impact on the psychological health of Latinx transgender and non-binary individuals in mainland United States and Puerto Rico: a mixed-methods study
BMC Public Health volume 22, Article number: 2017 (2022)
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to generate an unprecedented impact on all aspects of everyday life across the world. However, those with historically and currently marginalized identities (i.e., gender or ethnicity) who already experience a wide range of structural inequities have been disproportionally impacted. LTNB are a particularly at-risk population as they lie at the intersection of race/ethnicity, gender identity, language, migration status, geographical location, among others, which could further increase their COVID-19 and other health-related risks and disparities. The objective of this study was to examine the impact of key social determinants of health (i.e., gender identity, country, health insurance, employment) among a sample of LTNB individuals.
The team implemented a cross-sectional exploratory design with an online survey technique using the secure web platforms REDcap and SurveyMonkey. A total of 133 participants completed the online survey. Most of the sample self-identified as transwomen (38.8%), transmen (26.3%), and non-binary (21.8%) between the ages of 21 to 72. All participants were Latinx living in either Puerto Rico (47.7%) or mainland United States (52.3%). Descriptive statistics, reliability tests, Mann-Whitney and rapid thematic analysis test were conducted.
Findings show that most participants were always (38.1%) or almost always (33.3%) worried about contracting COVID-19. Individuals living in Puerto Rico reported more difficulties than those residing in the mainland US regarding COVID-19 impact on psychosocial, emotional, and COVID-related thinking. Most participants’ answers for the COVID-19 open-ended questions focused on three main domains: income, access to trans-affirmative health care, and coping strategies.
Findings evidence that although most of LTNB participants were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple aspects of their lives, those living in Puerto Rico experienced these differently when compared to those in mainland US. More research is needed to understand better the mechanisms and pathways through which this context specifically impacts LTNB health and wellbeing, particularly in Puerto Rico. This study could help shape the public health response taking into account the geographical location and other intersectional identities that play critical roles in the production and reproduction of inequities.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to generate an unprecedented impact on all aspects of everyday life across the world. However, those with historically and currently marginalized identities (i.e., gender or ethnicity) who already experience a wide range of structural inequities have been disproportionally impacted . Such is the case of transgender and non-binary individuals (TNB). Some significant challenges for TNB, particularly during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, were the reduced access to gender-affirming care [2,3,4] and the delay in gender-affirming surgeries [5, 6], which were considered to be non-essential medical care as a result of the pandemic. This leads to increased psychosocial challenges and mental health problems such as persistent gender dysphoria .
Studies have consistently evidenced the increased burden of mental health disorders among sexual and gender minoritized individuals (SGM) [8, 9]. Following the Minority stress model gender minoritized groups experience increased stressors due to their minority status and the stigma a discrimination associated with it that severely impacts their mental health . Pre-pandemic research found that SGM people of color, including Latinx individuals have higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts compared with cisgender peers [11, 12]. Moreover, a recent analysis of the Behavioral Risk Surveillance System from 2017 to 2019 found that TNB are more likely to report poor physical and mental health when compared with their cisgender peers . The historic mental health disparities combined with the additional stressor imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictive measures to control the pandemic could further impact the psychosocial wellbeing of TNB individuals .
Evidence shows the particularly detrimental psychosocial and emotional consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for TNB, including increased unemployment and lack of secure housing , increased anxiety and depression , unmet mental health needs , increased use of alcohol , and higher prevalence of suicide thoughts [19, 20]. Some of these disparities can be explained by the social determinants of health influencing the health status of minoritized TNB individuals [15, 21]. Nevertheless, little is known about their impact among TNB with multiple marginalized intersecting identities, such as Latinx trans and non-binary individuals (LTNB).
LTNB are a particularly at-risk population as they lie at the intersection of race/ethnicity, gender identity, language, migration status, geographical location, among others, which could further increase their COVID-19 and other health-related risks and disparities [2, 22, 23]. For example, several studies have consistently found Latinxs to experience higher COVID-19 disease burden, transmission, positivity rates, and mortality than non-Latinxs [24,25,26,27,28]. However, there is still a scarcity of empirical studies examining the psychosocial impact of the pandemic, particularly among LTGNB individuals. The few available studies have only focused on transwomen  and sexual minority men ; have relied on reduced samples of Latinx individuals [15, 30], or are non-empirical commentaries . This study fills this gap by focusing on a sample of LTNB individuals from mainland United States and Puerto Rico. The objective of this study was to examine the impact of key social determinants of health (i.e., gender identity, country, health insurance, employment) among a sample of LTNB individuals.
This research is part of a larger study that examines barriers and facilitators for cancer screening among LTNB individuals. After obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, the team implemented a cross-sectional exploratory design with an online survey technique using the secure web platforms REDcap and SurveyMonkey. Recruitment was conducted by availability between July 2020 and April 2021, during the first wave of the pandemic. The inclusion criteria were: (1) self-identify as trans, non-binary, or any other self-identifying term used to represent gender diversity; (2) 21 years of age (the age of adulthood in Puerto Rico) or older; and (3) Identify as Latinx. With the collaboration of key community researchers, members of the research team distributed the survey on social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), sent the link via email and text message, and distributed flyers with QR codes in LGBT centers and clinics. Participants received an Amazon card for $25 as an incentive for completing the survey.
A total of 133 participants completed the online survey. Most of the sample self-identified as transwomen (38.8%), transmen (26.3%), and non-binary (21.8%) between the ages of 21 to 72. In terms of sexual orientation 33.2% identified as heterosexual, followed by pansexual with 17.3%. All participants were Latinx living in either Puerto Rico (47.7%) or mainland United States (52.3%). Most of them were single (59.4%) at the time of the study, with a monthly income of less than USD 1500. Table 1 presents a more detailed description of the sample.
For the purpose of this manuscript, we present data regarding participants’ COVID-19 experience. As part of our larger study, the investigators designed and administered an online survey which collected information about participants’: 1) sociodemographic information; 2) COVID-related worries (1 item Likert scale ranging from “1″ never to “5″ always); and 3) impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their transition/affirmation process (1 checklist item), and 4) social, emotional, and physical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (comprised of 4 checklist items). Additionally, we included two open-ended questions to examine participants’: 1) general experience regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and 2) specific COVID-19 pandemic-related coping strategies.
Descriptive statistics (mean, frequencies, and normality) and reliability tests were conducted. Considering the homogeneity of the sample and the low percentage of missing values (< 0.4%), single imputation (mean substitution) was used to replace missing values with the mean for the entire series . Scores deviated from a normality distribution. Therefore, the analyst proceeded to sum all selected checklist options per item (social, emotional, physical, covid related thinking and transition) in order to conduct a Mann-Whitney test to compare COVID-19 impact by country.
To examine the open-ended questions’ qualitative data, the analyst implemented a rapid thematic analysis, a new innovative analytic technique that allowed to obtain targeted qualitative data in a shorter period [33, 34]. Responses were divided into three main areas related to 1) income and 2) access to gender-affirming care, and 3) coping strategies.
Findings show that most participants were always (38.1%) or almost always (33.3%) worried about contracting COVID-19. In terms of social impact, participants reported loss of employment (31.6%) and loss of social support network (34.6%). More than half of the participants reported feeling stressed (76.7%), anxious (69.2%), and sad (63.3%). Half of them (50.4%) mentioned avoiding thinking about what might happen to prevent stress. More than half of the participants (54.9%) recognized that their diet was affected. Finally, in terms of their gender affirmation/transition process, 36.4% admitted they had had difficulties with hormonal treatment follow-up. Detailed results can be found in Table 2.
Additionally, as seen in Table 3, results show that individuals living in Puerto Rico reported more difficulties than those residing in the mainland US regarding COVID-19 impact on psychosocial, emotional, and COVID-related thinking. In terms of their effect sizes, psychosocial and COVID-related thinking impact have effect sizes considered to be small, although psychosocial was close to a medium effect size. However, emotional impact has a medium effect size .
Most participants’ answers for the COVID-19 open-ended questions focused on three main domains: income, access to trans-affirmative health care, and coping strategies. Table 4 presents sample quotes from each of the three identified themes.
Findings evidence that although most of LTNB participants were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple aspects of their lives, those living in Puerto Rico experienced these differently when compared to those in mainland US. Similar to other studies, mental health challenges were identified, including increased worry about contracting COVID-19 [5, 15]. Moreover, feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness were prevalent among the sample regarding the current pandemic. These findings show how the COVID-19 pandemic seem to be an additional stressor linked to mental health challenges . This is an important aspect to consider when evaluation and providing care to TNB individuals, as studies have documented an increase burden of mental health disorders among this population [8, 13]. The additional stressors imposed by the covid-19 pandemic and in turn by the restrictive measures to control the pandemic could impose an even higher burden among this minoritized population .
In terms of social-related challenges, the loss of social support network was a key finding as a high percentage of participants identified this as a salient difficulty. Previous research has evidenced that having a social support network is linked to community resilience/resistance . Thus, lacking adequate social support networks could directly impact their wellbeing. An additional important finding was that almost a third of the sample lost their employment due to the pandemic. This is crucial as financial needs among this population have been extensively documented as a fundamental social determinant of health linked to the manifestation of oppression due to their gender and racial/ethnic identities and with detrimental consequences to their health and wellbeing [38, 39]. Taken together, quantitative, and qualitative findings suggest that the already precarious economic situation of LTNB seemed to be exacerbated by COVID-19.
Another area of concern was related to their trans-affirmative health care. Similar to other studies, participants identified difficulties related to their gender-affirming care, specifically delays in surgical procedures and follow-up of their hormonal treatment [2, 40]. Qualitative results also suggest that some participants postponed their hormone therapy, and others mentioned their difficulties getting medical appointments or buying medication refills. This is particularly worrisome as reduced access to gender-affirming care has been linked to increasing mental health vulnerability, including increased suicide behaviors . For example, Flaherty et al.  have argued for the need to prioritize gender-affirming care as urgent or time-sensitive during the COVID-19 pandemic. We support and extend the argument by highlighting the need to urgently and specifically consider LTNB individuals based on this study’s findings.
Additionally, one of the main findings of this study is that participants living in Puerto Rico during the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be experiencing more psychosocial and emotional challenges than those living in the mainland US. One potential explanation for this is the experience of constant stressors associated with the unstable social and political landscape in Puerto Rico during the past decade. For example, since 2008, Puerto Rico has experienced an economic recession, bankruptcy, austerity measures imposition, the ousting of a governor, the impact of two major hurricanes (Irma and María), and a swarm of earthquakes in 2020, all before the pandemic unfolded. This has led some researchers to posit that the main threat to Puerto Ricans living in the archipelago during the COVID-19 pandemic is precisely the context mentioned above [41,42,43]. These study findings suggest more research is needed to understand better the mechanisms and pathways through which this context specifically impacts LTNB health and wellbeing, particularly in Puerto Rico. Moreover, to eventually highlight the areas and systems that need to be put in place to create more sustainable & holistic support in benefit of these communities, during and post-pandemic times.
Finally, besides the identified challenges, findings also evidence specific strategies used by participants to resist and address the COVID-19 related challenges. For example, some of them engaged in entertainment activities, disconnected from the news, or engaged in alternative supporting networks and activities such as Reiki and religion. Recognizing the strengths and specific strategies used by LTNB individuals during challenging events such as the COVID-19 pandemic is key to tailoring targeted interventions, disaster preparedness, and fostering their health and wellbeing.
This study has several limitations. First, the survey was only conducted during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, no follow-up information about the impact of the pandemic was gathered at a different point in time. Secondly, the study did not include standardized instruments to assess the mental health symptoms of participants as this was not part of the aims of the broader study. Data reported here regarding their mental health and social challenges were self-reported. Finally, the sampling strategy used was by availability which limits the representative and generalizability of the findings.
Despite the limitations, this study highlights some of the challenges and experiences of LTNB individuals who are heavily neglected in the scientific literature. This study could help shape the public health response taking into account the geographical location and other intersectional identities that play critical roles in the production and reproduction of inequities. Moreover, this empirical study adds to the scarcity of literature documenting the specific experiences of Latinx trans and non-binary individuals. This is an important step towards documenting, understanding, and addressing specific stressors impacting ethnic minority groups such as Latinx/Hispanics.
Availability of data and materials
As per our IRB protocol, the data used to develop this manuscript is not available. Any additional information can be requested by contacting the corresponding author Dr. Alixida Ramos-Pibernus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The investigators want to thank all the Latinx trans and non-binary participants who supported the study and completed the survey. They also want to recognize the work of the research assistants (Coral Jiménez, Anaily Ocasio, Cristal Dedós, Stephanie Velar, and Dioselina Resto) and their support for the study.
This research was funded by National Cancer Institute under award 1R21CA233449. This publication was supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities under award U54MD007579. Dr. Rodríguez-Madera is funded by National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities under award 1R01MD014188 and National Institute on Aging under award 1R01MD014188. Dr. Rivera-Segarra is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health under award R34MH120179. Dr. Rivera-Segarra and Dr. Ramos-Pibernus are supported by the National Institutes on Minority Health and Health Disparities under award U54MD007579. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or any other funding agency.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
This study and all research activities were revised and approved by the Ponce Health Sciences University Institutional Review Board (#1903009446R001). All research activities were performed in accordance with the regulations protecting human subjects participating in research studies. All participants provided written informed consent prior to participating in the study and completing the survey.
Consent for publication
All the participants of the study provided written informed consent to publish the research findings of this study.
The authors declared no conflicts of interest.
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Ramos-Pibernus, A., Rodríguez-Madera, S., Rosario-Hernández, E. et al. COVID-19 impact on the psychological health of Latinx transgender and non-binary individuals in mainland United States and Puerto Rico: a mixed-methods study. BMC Public Health 22, 2017 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-14375-3
- Latinx trans and non-binary
- COVID-19 pandemic
- Puerto Rico
- Trans health