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Conversion therapy harms kids’ mental health, new study finds

It's not just that it doesn't work. It hurts.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

A new study published in the Journal of Homosexuality adds further evidence that conversion therapy negatively impacts the mental health of LGBTQ adolescents who are subjected to it.

The study recruited a group of young adults between the ages of 21 and 25 and asked them to share their experiences as an adolescent, including whether their parents tried to change their sexual orientation and whether those efforts involved some form of therapy or counseling. Those individuals then answered a variety of questions about their mental health and their outcomes later in life.

Across the board, teens who were subjected to sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) by their parents had worse outcomes — particularly for those who were sent to an external therapist or religious leader.

This included higher rates of depression, suicidal thinking and suicide attempts, and substance abuse problems, as well as lower self-esteem and overall satisfaction with life. Exposure to SOCE also correlated with lower education attainment and lower socioeconomic status.

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“SOCE is associated with multiple domains of functioning that affect self-care, well-being, and adjustment,” the study finds.

The study also found that religiously conservative and immigrant families were more likely to subject their children to SOCE. “Discomfort with gender nonconformity may be at the root of much of parents’ and caregivers’ motivations for SOCE,” the authors write. “In the current study, gender nonconforming youth were more likely to experience attempts to change their sexual orientation through conversion therapy with therapists and religious leaders.”

One of the lead researchers in the study was Caitlin Ryan, who, as director of the Family Acceptance Project, has pioneered numerous other studies about how parental acceptance is fundamental to the well-being of LGBTQ young people. Referencing this past research, the researchers note, “This study highlights
the crucial role parents play in SOCE — either directly themselves or through sending their children to therapists or religious leaders.”

In 2009, the American Psychological Association issued a report concluding that based on all available research, SOCE is ineffective at actually changing sexual orientation, and that there were indications it could be harmful. A support group for people who had endured conversion therapy (“ex-gay survivors”) conducted an informal study of over 400 survivors in 2013 and found widespread experiences of shame, depression, and self-hate. In that group, 41 percent reported suicidal thinking directly related to their experiences in therapy.

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Since then, 14 states and Washington, D.C. have banned conversion therapy, but only for minors. This year, California also considered a bill that would have declared all conversion therapy a form of consumer fraud, which would have been the first such law in the country protecting adults from the harmful treatment as well. It did not advance, but its proponents have promised to bring it back.

These bans, however, only address licensed therapists and do little to protect young people from religious leaders who might try to change their sexual orientation through counseling. It thus remains a widespread, if underdocumented, problem. A recent study by the Williams Institute estimated that nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. have been subjected to some form of conversion therapy — half of them as adolescents.

Two new films this year are helping shine more light on what religious conversion therapy looks like. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a fictional (but authentic) account of a young girl sent to a Christian boarding school that tries to reject her sexual orientation. Boy Erased is based on the real life experiences of Garrard Conley, who participated in the now defunct ex-gay residential program Love In Action. In both stories, the protagonists’ parents or guardians play a significant role in subjecting them to these conversion therapy experiences.

The new study concludes by pointing out that “more attention is needed on family-based efforts to change a child’s sexual orientation and gender expression” because of the reality that “LGBT youth cannot escape family rejecting behaviors.”