How affirming someone’s gender can change their life for the better

UCLA Health psychologist Jessica Bernacki has seen “incredibly positive changes” for patients who receive gender-affirming care.

Dr. Jessica Bernacki, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist and director of Behavioral Health for the UCLA Gender Health Program. (UCLA Health photo)

“I think our work is really life-saving,” says Jessica Bernacki, PhD, pediatric psychologist and director of Behavioral Health for the UCLA Gender Health Program.

Dr. Bernacki has seen how affirming someone’s gender can change their life for the better. She says she considers it preventative care for mental health and overall well-being.

The UCLA Gender Health Program provides an array of comprehensive health services and resources to transgender and gender-diverse patients of all ages. Dr. Bernacki has been the primary psychologist for the program since it was founded in 2016.

Her role is to help patients clarify treatment goals, discuss gender development and affirmation, assess for behavioral health needs, help families understand and provide support, and provide guidance with referrals and documentation.

Providing gender-affirming care may look like: social and emotional affirmation such as using appropriate names and pronouns, medical affirmation such as hormone therapy and gender affirming surgeries, and legal affirmation like identity documents.

“The most rewarding thing is helping people get access to the care that they need and seeing often the incredibly positive changes that happen because of people getting access to that care,” she says.

Access is uneven

The care Dr. Bernacki and her colleagues provide could be considered illegal in states like Arkansas, where gender affirming care for people under 18 is prohibited.

More than 20 other states have introduced similar bills, which carry penalties for health care providers and sometimes the families of patients, according to a brief from the UCLA Williams Institute School of Law.

“While I think there's some security in knowing that we're in California – which doesn't have any of this legislation being proposed – almost everyone I interact with is aware that this is happening across our country,” Dr. Bernacki says. “There's a lot of youth who are afraid of ‘what if.’ What if I can't get access to the care I need? Or what if I go off to college in a different state? Do I have to factor that into where I go?”

She says parents are alarmed and many are struggling to determine what’s best for their children and adolescents during a time when they’re being targeted.

For the families she sees at the UCLA Gender Health Program, Dr. Bernacki reminds them that there are people doing the work to push back against such discriminatory laws.

“There’s a lot of people putting in a lot of effort to publicly recognize the importance of affirming care,” she says. “The Gender Health Program has been a really phenomenal way to connect those people throughout our health system.”

Comprehensive care

UCLA Health, for the ninth year, received designation as an LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality Leader by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Healthcare Equality Index (HEI). Additionally, more than 50 physicians are considered “LGBTQ Champions” who have received specialized training and experience in caring for LGBTQ patients.

For families considering contacting The Gender Health Program, Dr. Bernacki says the best way to learn about the gender health program is to explore the website.

“There is information about the services provided, the providers and patient resources.  There is also a series of webinars by our providers that patients can watch. 

“Finally, we have an incredible care coordination team that can be reached via the website to discuss patients’ goals and needs.”

The “common goal of getting gender-diverse folks the kind of the care that they need to be happy, healthy people” is the aspect of her job that she loves most.

“Hearing from patients of all ages about the difficulty they've had in finding a place where they could get the care they need – and now being able to get that care in a comprehensive way from a team that really, really cares – has been really powerful.”

Learn more about the UCLA Gender Health Program.

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