Fact check: Haley blames transgender athletes for teen girls' suicidal ideation

During a CNN town hall June 4, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said one example of wokeness is "biological boys playing in girls' sports," calling it the "women's issue of our time."
Posted 2023-06-08T19:45:33+00:00 - Updated 2023-06-10T02:15:05+00:00

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley recently said more teenage girls are contemplating suicide, and she offered an explanation.

During a CNN town hall June 4, the former South Carolina governor talked about her definition of "woke," a term with varying definitions used derisively by some Republican politicians. Haley said one example of wokeness is "biological boys playing in girls’ sports," calling it the "women’s issue of our time."

"How are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker rooms?" Haley said. "And then we wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year. We should be growing strong girls, confident girls."

CNN host Jake Tapper said the Trevor Project, a group whose mission is to end suicide among LGBTQ+ young people, had found that about half of transgender and nonbinary young people have seriously considered suicide in the past year.

Haley said trans youth should receive therapy and other help, but "don't go and cause all these other kids to feel like that pressure’s on them."

Recent federal data shows a troubling level of suicidal ideation by teen girls. However, Haley’s causal connection between transgender athletes and rising teen suicidal ideation among girls is unsupported.

"We know a lot about risk factors for suicide, epidemiologically and from surveying youth themselves," said Carl Fleisher, medical director of the Boston Child Study Center in Los Angeles. "On top of that list are things like poverty, childhood abuse, untreated mental illness, identifying as LGBTQ+, social consequences of the pandemic, etc.

"Locker rooms and bathrooms are not on the list."

When we asked Haley’s campaign spokesperson to cite research that supported her claim, he sent a statement by Haley that did not answer the question: "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."

CDC survey showed an increase in suicide ideation

A 2021 survey released earlier this year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked 17,000 high school students — nearly half female — four questions about their suicidal thoughts and behavior during the past year. The survey found that teen girls were experiencing record high levels of suicide risk.

  • About 30% of female high school students said they seriously considered attempting suicide.
  • About 23.6% of female high school students said they had made a suicide plan.
  • About 13.3% of female high school students said they had attempted suicide.
  • Nearly 3 in 5 U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 — double the rate for boys, representing a nearly 60% increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.

The survey showed that 61.6 % of the female respondents identified as heterosexual, 20% as bisexual, 13.7% as other or questioning, and 3.7% as gay or lesbian. (The survey did not include a demographic category specifically for transgender respondents.)

The report found more than half (52%) of LGBTQ+ students had recently experienced poor mental health and more than 1 in 5 attempted suicide in the past year.

The survey did not ask students for the reason or reasons they considered suicide.

No evidence for Haley’s connection to trans athletes

Experts in teen suicide and related fields dismissed any connection tying exposure to trans girls in locker rooms to the suicidal thoughts of teen girls.

"I know of no research that exposure to trans girls in locker rooms plays any significant role in prompting suicide ideation among teen, or adult, girls," said Quintin A. Hunt, an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at Brigham Young University.

Anne Marie Albano, director of Columbia University’s Clinic for Anxiety & Related Disorders, said Haley was far off base and using "harmful hyperbole."

Instead, the CDC has pointed to the lack of access to mental health services and other factors, including substance misuse, family or relationship problems, community violence and discrimination.

In interviews, experts also cited feelings of isolation or loneliness, which may have been increased by the pandemic, and feeling like a burden on others.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of "Girls on the Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Era of Increased Anxiety, Depression, and Social Media," told CNN that girls are facing depression earlier than in the past, by ages 12 or 13.

"Once they are on social media, the focus on appearance hits girls especially," she said. "They are more likely to be ‘liked’ or ‘disliked’ based on their looks, and sexualized, than boys. They learn that the more clothes you take off, the more ‘likes’ you get, and that their bodies are going to get evaluated."

She also said that girls are facing the threats of global warming, school shootings and sexual harassment and violence against women.

According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone in 2022, up from 74% in 2014-15. Nearly 97% of teens use the internet every day, and 46% say they use it "almost constantly."

This "fundamentally changed the way teens spent their time outside of school, in a direction detrimental to mental health, including less time with friends in person, less time sleeping, and more time online," said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

Haley framed her comment by saying that teen girls at risk of suicide are in direct contact with "biological boys … in their locker rooms." But experts note that the number of trans students is small, if uncertain.

Here’s our best guesstimate: A 2017 CDC survey found that about 1.8% of high school students identified as transgender. Applying that percentage to the 8.1 million girls between 15 and 18 suggests there were about 147,000 trans girls in high school overall. About 12% of transgender girls have been involved in youth sports, according to a 2017 survey by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group. These rough numbers place a possible number of trans girls in high school sports at about 17,600.

A larger number may participate in a required gym class, though it’s impossible to know how many use a girls’ locker room or even use a locker room at all for gym class.

Meanwhile, if 30% of the nation’s 8.1 million high-school-age girls have considered suicide, that’s a much larger figure, roughly 2.4 million girls.

The irony of Haley pointing to trans athletes as a cause of others’ suicidal ideation is that trans students are at disproportionate risk of suicide.

Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts were all three to four times higher for trans students than for nontrans students, also known as cisgender students, according to CDC data analyzed by the liberal Center for American Progress.

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: False

Haley said the presence of "biological boys" in girls’ locker rooms is a reason why "a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year."

Teen girls today are experiencing rising rates of suicidal ideation. However, there is no research that suggests this is being caused by the presence of trans athletes in locker rooms.

Research points to other causes, including feelings of isolation or loneliness, feeling like a burden on others, difficulty navigating parental and family relationships and pressures from constant exposure to social media.

We rate this statement False.