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Intersex mental health

Those of us who are intersex may go through experiences that lead to poor mental health. Your individual experiences may depend on the variation you have.

This page covers:

This page is part of our guide to:

LGBTQIA+ mental health

Remember: there can be many positive experiences that come with being intersex.

Our page on self-care includes tips for finding these positive experiences.

Intersex is an umbrella term. It describes certain variations in people's sex characteristics. These characteristics might differ from medical or social ideas of male and female bodies. They may include things like our hormones, genitals, and facial hair.

You might be comfortable with the term intersex. Or you might prefer terms like variations of sex characteristics (VSC), differences in sex development (DSD). Or use a term that describes your specific difference, like congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH).

You may use different terms with different people. For example, you may talk about your specific variation with a doctor. But you might describe yourself as intersex in other areas of your life.

For this information we use the term 'intersex', as it's a common term that we know many people find helpful. But it's ok if you prefer other terms.

Mind is here for your mental health, no matter how you describe yourself.

Difficult feelings with finding out you're intersex

You may not have found out you were intersex until you were a teenager or adult, and had to adapt to this new information. You may find it difficult to trust family members if they didn't tell you about your variation for a long time.

You might have had medically unnecessary operations done on your body. This may have been done without your consent.

You might not have found out about these operations until later in life. Or it may have been difficult to get information about these procedures from doctors. Because of this you might also find it difficult to trust healthcare professionals.

Shame and stigma

You may experience negative attitudes and treatment for being intersex. This could be from people around you, and from wider society. This section explains some common experiences that might cause shame or stigma.

Secrecy

Some people might suggest that you keep your variation a secret. This could make you feel like it's shameful, and that there's something wrong with you.

Your parents may have kept being intersex secret from you because of shame or embarrassment. They may still feel this way. They might also have been advised to do this by a medical professional. This could make you experience low self-esteem or self-worth.

Assumptions

People might make assumptions about what being intersex is. And about what it means to you.

This might include assuming things about your identity. For example, whether you identify as male, female or non-binary. This could make you feel misunderstood and unseen. You might question whether you're 'enough' of the gender you identify as.

Worries about telling other people

You might worry about talking to others about being intersex. You might be concerned that they'll misunderstand you, or treat you differently.

This could include anxiety about starting a sexual or romantic relationship. For example, if your variation makes sex uncomfortable or affects your sex drive. Whether you decide to tell everybody, nobody or some people, nobody should make that choice apart from you.

Social exclusion

You may not know anyone else who shares your experience. And other people in your life may not understand what you're going through.

You may need to educate people about your experience. This might start from a young age. For example, if your school didn't provide any information about intersex people's experiences.

Physical health problems

Physical health problems can contribute to mental health problems. And mental health problems can affect our physical health.

You may have physical health problems related to your variation or surgery you've had. These might need regular medical appointments or medication.

You may also experience fertility problems related to your variation. This could lead to feelings of grief, loss and sadness.

Discrimination

You may be treated unfairly because of your variation if you're intersex.

Not everyone will have these negative experiences. Excellent services and organisations do exist. But in society as a whole, LGBTQIA+ people are treated unequally.

Discrimination could happen in many areas of life, including:

  • The healthcare system. You may face barriers to accessing health services. This might include services that aren't related to your variation. Some health professionals may not know enough about intersex people's needs and experiences. For example, they may not understand the differences between intersex and trans people's experiences. Or about fertility or sexual health treatment options for intersex people.
  • Workplaces. You may have gaps in your work history because of medical treatment. This could cause problems with finding work. And you may experience unequal treatment from employers and colleagues.

Experiencing discrimination can increase your risk of poor mental health. This is especially if you face different types of discrimination. For example, discrimination to do with your variation and your race. See our page on intersectionality and LGBTQIA+ to find out more about different types of discrimination.

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination and gives them a legal right to challenge it. But it does not currently include being intersex as a protected characteristic. This means you might not be able to complain about discrimination under the Equality Act.

But this doesn't mean you can't complain about how you're treated. You have a right to be treated fairly and with respect.

Places like NHS trusts and employers may have their own LGBTQIA+ policies that include intersex variations. You may be able to complain if a service hasn't followed its own policies.

See our page on complaining about health and social care for information on how to challenge discrimination by healthcare professionals.

Abuse and hate crime

Abuse is when someone hurts you physically, sexually, emotionally or financially. It can also include making threats towards you or damaging your belongings. A hate crime is when this abuse happens because of who you are, such as being intersex.

You might experience abuse and hate online or in person. It could be from a stranger, or someone you know. These experiences could make you feel unsafe. They can also impact your mental health – such as causing anxiety, sleep problems, suicidal feelings or PTSD.

Other experiences of discrimination might make it harder to tell people what happened. You might worry that it won't be taken seriously. Or you might not realise that what you've experienced was abuse or hate.

Abuse is illegal. You deserve to feel safe.

In the UK, hate crime law does not specifically cover intersex people. But this doesn't mean you can't report abuse to the police.

To find out more, visit the charity Galop's information about hate and abuse. Or call Galop's confidential helpline for support. Galop includes intersex people in its definition of hate crime.

Being forced to have surgery

You might have had cosmetic surgery as a child that wasn't necessary for medical reasons. This surgery may have been to make your genitals align with the sex you were assigned at birth.

It might have happened without your consent. Or you or your caregiver may have been coerced into giving consent. The United Nations (UN) considers this an abuse of human rights.

Forced medical treatments can contribute to physical and mental trauma, depression and feelings of shame. You might also experience stress if you feel the surgery aligned you with the wrong sex.

Medical abuse may happen even though there is nothing wrong with being intersex. The way your body looks does not need to be 'cured' or changed.

Some medical treatments might be needed in your life as an intersex person. But most surgeries done on young intersex people are not medically necessary. There is rarely a good reason for them to be done without your consent.

The UN has called for all countries to end forced surgery on intersex people.

Is forced surgery a type of conversion 'therapy'?

In the UK, conversion 'therapy' means any practice that tries to change or suppress your sexual orientation or gender identity.

The definition of conversion 'therapy' used by the UK government does not currently include intersex variations or forced surgery.

Mind has called for the ban on conversion 'therapy' in the UK to cover intersex people.

Published: May 2024

Next review planned: May 2027

References and bibliography available on request.

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