A bathroom sign showing all-gender symbol with the word "Humans"

The study concluded that transgender health can be greatly improved by supportive families and a strong social support system.

Melissa Jacob ’16, an alumna of the Adelphi Honors College who majored in communication sciences and disorders, handed in her senior thesis when she graduated. The work she did on it with the help of her adviser would continue long after that, though, leading to its publication in a scientific journal last July. The article could help improve the health of the transgender population.

Jacob’s adviser and mentor was Steven Cox, Ph.D., a speech-language pathologist and assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. The two collaborated on the published study, which is based on a review of 154 articles and other records about transgender health. It was the first report, according to the authors, to look at such a broad selection of data by using certain classification standards created by the World Health Organization.

The study concluded that transgender health can be greatly improved by supportive families and a strong social support system, as well as by access to health professionals educated in transgender issues.

“These factors are essential to ensure that transgender individuals receive the health care and support services they need before, during and after transition,” Dr. Cox said.

A growing population

According to a report published in the American Journal of Public Health, nearly one million people in the United States identify as transgender. The term refers not only to those who transition from male to female or female to male, but to any person who does not identify according to culturally defined gender categories.

Dr. Cox and his colleague Irene Kling, Ph.D., currently work with transgender clients through the Hy Weinberg Center for Communication Disorders at Adelphi University. There, the clinicians have provided free voice modification services to more than 25 transgender clients.

Jacob credits Dr. Cox with helping her focus her thesis and gain a deeper understand of the material she was studying.

“As an undergraduate, I was a little intimidated to reach out to a professor I hadn’t worked with before,” Jacob recalled. “But from the moment I met with him, it was a completely collaborative and supportive experience.”

Interest in social issues

Transgender rights have been a prominent issue nationally, most recently when President Donald Trump announced he was banning transgendered people from serving in the military.

Jacob had long been interested in social justice and in LGBTQ issues. She gathered her material for the report with help from Dr. Cox and through the ample research sources available in Adelphi’s Swirbul Library.

Jacob and Dr. Cox found that many in the transgender community face the potential for enduring “double discrimination” due to their socioeconomic status, race and/or age. Transgender women also face a significantly greater risk of HIV/AIDS. One report found that 57 percent of transgender individuals attempted suicide after their families rejected them. Another 28 percent postponed urgent medical care, while 33 percent avoided preventative care due to their gender identity, leading to poorer health.

The study recommends that health professionals seek continuing education to learn how to work with transgender clients. One study found that teaching about gender identity in medical school helped boost future doctors’ comfort levels with transgender clients.

The study highlights the importance of families supporting transgender members and social service programs welcoming transgender clients. It also illustrates the importance of positive representation of transgender individuals in the media.

A new love for research

Jacob spent a year working on the 50-page report before graduating in 2016. She subsequently enrolled in graduate school at The City University of New York’s Lehman College. In her first year of grad school, she continued working with Dr. Cox to prepare the study for publication. It was published last year in Quality of Life Research.

“It really shows the power of collaboration between an undergraduate student and a professor,” Dr. Cox said. “From our work, we were able to highlight important factors that facilitate positive health outcomes for transgender individuals. It is also important for health professionals to provide an individualized plan of care to anyone seeking gender-affirming services.”

Jacob says her work with Dr. Cox instilled in her a love for research. She now intends to pursue her doctorate in speech pathology.

“It’s made me a better clinician,” she said. “It’s helped me develop my critical thinking skills.”

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