“How are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker rooms? And then we wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year.”

— Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), remarks during a CNN town hall, June 4

Haley, a Republican presidential hopeful, took a politically potent stance against transgender students participating in sports if it isn’t under the sex assigned at birth — a stance that aligns with polls showing that Americans increasingly support restrictions affecting transgender children. But then she suggested that this is a reason suicide thoughts have spiked among teenage girls.

There’s no data to support this claim. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that she cited made no such connection — and in fact shows a higher percentage of LGBTQ teen girls have contemplated suicide compared with cisgender girls.

When we asked the Haley campaign why the candidate made this link, her spokesman responded with a statement he said was from Haley herself: “We have to grow strong girls, and that is being threatened right now. Whether it’s biological boys going into girls’ locker rooms or playing in girls’ sports, women are being told their voices don’t matter. If you think this kind of aggressive bullying isn’t part of the problem, you’re not paying attention.”

That didn’t answer the question. Let’s look at what the data shows.

The CDC earned headlines in February with the release of a summary of the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which showed a sharp increase in the percentage of girls who have considered suicide or have felt persistently sad or hopeless. More than 1 in 4 girls reported they seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021, up significantly over the previous decade. Then, in April, the agency issued a more detailed report on what the YRBS survey revealed about suicidal thoughts among high school students.

While suicidal thoughts and behaviors remained stable for males from 2019 to 2021, female students had an increased prevalence of seriously considering suicide (to 30 percent from 24.1 percent) and an increase in making a suicide plan (to 24.6 percent from 19.9 percent), the report said.

The report suggested the covid pandemic affected girls much more than boys, with an increase in suicidal thoughts especially among students who had relied on school-based mental health care. With the closure of schools, that option was no longer available.

“Although lack of access to mental health services might have contributed to increased suicide risk, certain other factors, including substance misuse, family or relationship problems, community violence, and discrimination, might have also contributed to the increased risk,” the report said.

The survey data shows that the problem was especially acute among LGBTQ children. Twenty percent of heterosexual students reported that they had seriously considered suicide, compared to 41 percent of lesbian students, 52 percent of bisexual students, 36 percent of “questioning” students and about 48 percent of students who identified themselves as “other.”

To put those numbers in perspective, about 61.6 percent of females surveyed said they were heterosexual, 3.7 said they were lesbian, 20 percent said they were bisexual and 13.7 percent said they were either questioning or other.

“Suicidal feelings and attempts are more than 3 times higher among the sex and gender minority youth in the CDC report,” said David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor who is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. “That could be attributed to the stigma, bullying, social marginality that could be exacerbated by the political hostility around the issues.”

Finkelhor said there has not been a lot of empirical analysis about causes for the sudden increase in suicidality among youth, though the case has been made that social media and smartphones are a key factor. He said other factors that have been cited include: more sleep deprivation, decline of face-to-face social interaction, the impact of societal polarization, pessimism about the future connected to global warming, and increasing availability of firearms.

Transgender athletes are not on that list. Indeed, when Washington Post pollster Scott Clement examined the data, he found that very few student-athletes are transgender. His analysis of CDC surveys from six states and six urban districts found that 43 percent of transgender students said they played sports — suggesting that about 1 percent of athletes in these jurisdictions are transgender.

Nevertheless, the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of American surveyed favored laws that required trans athletes to compete on teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth. A Washington Post-KFF poll also found strong majorities saying that transgender women and girls should not be allowed to compete with other women and girls.

The Post poll also found that 17 percent of cisgender women under the age of 35 reported they felt unsafe at school growing up — compared with 46 percent of trans adults under age 35.

Haley has latched onto an issue — denouncing the practice of trans students competing on teams that do not match their birth sex — that polling shows wins approval from many Americans. She also noted the disturbing rise in suicidal thoughts among teen girls. But she jumps the shark when she tries to link the two issues and suggests girls are contemplating suicide because transgender students are in their locker rooms.

There’s no evidence that is the case. Many other factors — such as a lack of mental health resources during the pandemic and the rise of social media — appear to play a role in the increase in suicidal thoughts.

Indeed, rather than transgender students bullying others, the data shows transgender students are more likely to feel bullied themselves — and as a consequence think more often about committing suicide than cisgender girls.

Haley tried to give herself an out by using language such as “we wonder.” But, when we requested evidence, she did not provide any and just doubled down on the statement, accusing trans students of “aggressive bullying.” She earns Four Pinocchios.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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