A new study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Department (SAMHSA) reaffirms that conversion therapy is harmful for minors.
The report, “Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth,” released in October included findings and discussions by an expert panel held by the American Psychological Association in July 2015 and included alternatives to conversion therapy.
“There’s been increased attention to conversion therapy on minors,” said Elliot Kennedy, who helped work on the report. “What was missing was a science based report providing accurate information for parents and health workers.”
He said there are two take away messages from the study research. First, variations in sexual and gender orientation are normal. Second, that conversion therapy isn’t effective or appropriate and that it reinforces negative stereotypes.
Z Joshua Wolff, a psychologist who helped work on the study, understands this all too well. When he was in his 20s, he went through years of conversion therapy.
“My very first session with him [the psychologist], I asked very directly, ‘Is this something that you think you can change? Can you help me change my sexual orientation from being attracted to men to being attracted to women?’” he recalled.
The psychologist told him that he’d changed other men before him, and Wolff said he was excited to have finally found someone who could help and who told him the answers that he wanted to hear, that he could finally change “this part of me that I really believed was sinful and wrong and was very ashamed of.”
A year after starting therapy, Wolff noticed that nothing had really changed. When he told his doctor this, the psychologist responded that if they kept working at it and tried to look deeper into Wolff’s issues with his father, he would eventually become heterosexual.
With this new information in mind, Wolff continued the therapy. A half a year later, Wolff still hadn’t seen any results. In fact, he saw it had negative effects.
“I didn’t want to be gay,” Wolff confessed. “Someone said I could change, but no matter how hard I tried, nothing changed. I actually became more depressed and was just wondering, ‘Why isn’t this working? What am I doing wrong?’”
He told his therapist about his thoughts, and he said something that Wolff said he’d never forget.
“He said, ‘If you decide that you’re gay and one day you send me a Christmas card, and it has you and another man on it, I’ll be happy for you, but I’ll always know that that wasn’t the best for you,’” Wolff confided.
He said he realized that his unhappiness stemmed from the fact that he believed he was imperfect and that he could never be content unless he worked harder enough to change himself.
“It was harmful and could’ve been more harmful if I’d stayed with the treatment longer,” he said. “Not to mention the financial aspect. It was expensive and didn’t even work.”
The new study would be helpful primarily for providers working with families who might be distressed by a child’s identity, said Kennedy. It would also be helpful for families themselves.
Wolff said that he thinks that helping families is top priority.
“My hope would be that working with family and parents to find ways not to reject their children and still be consistent with their religious beliefs,” he said.
Kennedy said the administration’s objective is to educate providers who are unsure of how to help a family in distress. He hopes that the report can serve as a resource to inform the public.
Samantha Ames, #BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator, said she believes the findings of the study are groundbreaking, especially for transgender youth.
“The research and clinical expertise makes clear that conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth is ineffective and very likely harmful,” she said.
She said because parents put their children into therapy because they love them and think that it’s the best option, public education is the best way to combat conversion therapy.
That’s what she hopes to do with the #BornPerfect campaign, which began in June 2013 with the goal of ending conversion therapy in the U.S. in five years.
Currently, conversion therapy is banned in four countries. People involved in the campaign work on bills to prohibit licensed mental health providers from treating patients under 18 years old. They send bills to court and speak to communities, allowing survivors to speak at the meetings.
The issue has gone from one largely unknown by much of the population to something that has become an issue at the forefront of LGBT equality, Ames said.
“We’re not going to end it by passing a law in every state or court case in every jurisdiction” she said. “We’re going to end it by stopping a client base for the industry by showing that this is not the right way to do right for their children.”