'It's not a mental illness, the solution is surgical'
THE Exeter-based Laurels is the only centre that offers advice and support around gender dysphoria in the South West and the numbers accessing the service are growing.
Run by the Devon Partnership NHS Trust, the clinical team leader for the Laurels Maria Morris described it as a clinic of gender and sexual medicine.
She said: "We provide a service for people who have issues around their gender identity and we are the only one in the South West. We were very small but in the early 1990s we were successful in taking on a new consultant and have continued to grow from there.
"The GP is the first port of call and they make a referral to us. The individual will then be assessed by a psychiatrist and we will help them through every step of the way.
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"The numbers using our service have been increasing over a number of years. There was a 23-per-cent increase in 2005 when we started to log a lot of data. A total of 167 people were referred to us in the financial year 2011-12, which was a 47-per-cent increase on the year before.
"According to official statistics one in 15,000 males live wanting to be a female and one in 30,000 who are female want to be a male.
"For every one person brave enough to go to their GP at least five are scared and sat at home not getting the help they need.
"We are only just touching the surface."
Ms Morris said that the number of women using the service is increasing and estimated it currently as 60/40 men.
She added: "People do experience great sense of despair and can be in and out of prison and have anger problems. They know that something is different but are not sure what it is. Sadly some people feel the only way is not to be here any longer.
"We have to do a proper assessment so we can then work with the medical team to make a diagnosis. It takes three to six months to do it properly and then we move on to appropriate treatment. We lose around 10 to 20 per cent at this stage. It is such a big step to get here in the first place that by the time they arrive they are pretty confident about what they want to do.
"We also work to manage their hormones and have a support group to look at how people can blend into the community.
"Some people need all of that. The end product is a significant life-changing event and we need to make sure it is the right thing for the person to do.
"Some people are very confident and may only use a half of that. But overall the process can take three to four years.
"It is all about getting people to a comfortable point. For a few people that might mean, 'I am happy how I am', and they don't want to have major surgery. We never push people into surgery.
"People do bottle their feelings up for many years and there are often people with a history of doing very masculine things such as being in the forces or married two or three times.
"Telling family, friends and work colleagues can be a traumatic thing to do. Becci is one of the lucky ones. Some people are disowned by their families and have been declared freaks. We become their family then, and help them live a life.
"Male to female is only one operation, while female to male is three separate operations.
"We do still have problems with some health professionals who think if someone just goes away they will become better over time. But this is not a mental illness – the solution is surgical."