Outlook Not Looking Good for "Conversion Therapy"

More bad news for "conversion therapy."

Posted May 24, 2012

Job prospects are not looking good if you make your living doing pseudotherapy to try and change a person’s sexual orientation. Earlier this month psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer renounced his study suggesting that therapy to change sexual orientation works with some individuals who are “highly motivated.” He went on to apologize to the gay community and anyone who “wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy.” I blogged about his apology and the NY Times also wrote about it along with numerous other media outlets. His apology garnered so much interest because Dr. Spitzer was a major player in writing the diagnostic manual of mental disorders and he successfully persuaded the committee to drop homosexuality from that manual.

Last week the Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization issued a statement that “therapies" to change sexual orientation lack medical justification and threaten health. "Since homosexuality is not a disorder or a disease, it does not require a cure. There is no medical indication for changing sexual orientation," said Director Dr. Mirta Roses Periago. “Practices known as ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘conversion therapy’ represent a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people." The PAHO statement notes that there is a professional consensus that homosexuality is a natural variation of human sexuality and cannot be regarded as a pathological condition. The document notes that no rigorous scientific studies demonstrate any efficacy of efforts to change sexual orientation. However, there are many testimonies about the severe harm to mental and physical health that such "services" can cause. Repression of sexual orientation has been associated with feelings of guilt and shame, depression, anxiety, and even suicide. "These practices are unjustifiable and should be denounced and subject to sanctions and penalties under national legislation," said Dr. Roses. "These supposed conversion therapies constitute a violation of the ethical principles of health care and violate human rights that are protected by international and regional agreements." 

Today more news. As reported in the U.K. newspaper, The Independent, Britain's professional organization for therapists, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, found a therapist guilty of malpractice for practicing so called “conversion therapy.” She appealed the decision and on Tuesday, she lost. According to the article, the appeal panel described the therapist’s practices as "unprofessional," "dogmatic" and "negligent" and suspended her.

While I mentioned in a previous blog that a bill was introduced in the California legislature to outlaw so called “conversion therapy,” I suspect in the U.S. that public policies will have a hard time eliminating the practice in places where it is entrenched. That’s because anyone in the U.S. can call themself a “psychotherapist,” “therapist,” or “counselor” because these are not legally regulated terms (however, calling yourself a psychologist or psychiatrist would be illegal if you don’t have the proper credentials and license). Unfortunately, consumers don’t always know the credentials of their therapist, and I suspect most of the “conversion therapy” practitioners are not licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, or other licensed mental health professionals. If you don’t have a license, you can’t have it taken away.

In the U.S., all major professional mental health organizations denounce “conversion therapy” as ineffective and potentially very harmful, so it is possible that a malpractice claim could lead to disciplinary action including loss of license. In fact, just yesterday the Washington Post reported on an ethics complaint against an Oregon psychiatrist by the Sothern Poverty Law Center, which according to the article, plans to take the same action in other states as part of a national campaign to stop therapists from trying to make gay people straight. I suspect we will be seeing more of these complaints in the future until this practice is put to rest.

IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program
Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program. You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook.  I periodically live tweet from research conferences on sexuality and you can follow me @sexualcontinuum

Image source: International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.