What does the evidence say about conversion therapy

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In light of Saskatoon’s recent ban, let’s review

CW: homophobia, transphobia, mental health struggles, suicide

A key aspect of scientific study, understanding, and practice in quite literally any field is willingness to adjust current methods when evidence from valid scientific research suggests there’s a better way for things to be done, or that current methods cause more harm than good. Adhering to this method is usually to the benefit of the field itself, and to those who benefit from the work of said field.

This is fairly easy to observe in areas like agriculture; once upon a time it was the norm to yolk your ox and plow a field by hand in order to feed yourself and your family, but with technological advancements we can now feed millions of people through the work of thousands. Another example would be plumbing; rather than having sewage waste run through the streets or exclusively using outhouses, we now have toilets with running water and pipe systems to transport that waste. There’s even been recent progress in designing vehicle tires that don’t use inflation to hold their shape (non-pneumatic), so that a puncture wouldn’t lead to immediate disposal.

This method is a core aspect of psychology as well, especially in clinical psychology which involves the assessment and treatment of mental health disorders. Instead of locking people in asylums and using treatments that modern standards would deem inhumane at best, there are countless treatment options and pharmaceutical aids that can be used by those who need them, alongside a code of ethics that practitioners adhere to in their treatments.

 I will stress the fact that these changes did not come about smoothly. Change on a personal level isn’t easy, and it’s no easier in professional atmospheres where someone’s theory that they’ve potentially devoted decades to is being brought into question. However, unless we want current problems to continue indefinitely, we must question the way things are currently being done. This questioning was publicly engaged in by the Saskatoon city council over the past several months as they considered placing a ban on conversion therapy. 

The Trevor Project, an American organization devoted to crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ individuals, defines conversion therapy as “any of several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” In addition, the American Psychological Association Task Force said in 2009 that scientifically valid research shows that conversion therapy is unlikely to reduce same-sex attraction or promote heterosexual attraction. The fact that it’s a discredited practice – something that’s been shown through replicated research to not be effective – should be enough of a reason to end it. However, it is still practiced (yes, even here in Saskatchewan, which realistically should not be surprising), and the harms of the practice have been thoroughly documented.

Some of the harmful effects identified by the American Psychological Association Task Force for those who experience conversion therapy include guilt, shame, loss of religious faith, increased self-hatred, feeling dehumanized, increased substance abuse, high-risk sexual behaviours, social withdrawal, and suicidality. The Trevor Project expanded on this by conducting a national survey on LGBTQ+ youth mental health in 2020. On the plus side this study found that only 10 per cent of respondents had experienced conversion therapy, but that 10 per cent reported over twice the rate of attempted suicides in the previous year compared to youth who didn’t experience conversion therapy.

 A common narrative in bigoted circles is that being anything other than cisgendered and heterosexual will lead to mental health disorders and suicide, so they portray stopping people from exploring their gender identity and sexual orientation as protecting them from that outcome. This is often used to justify things like conversion therapy, which aims to discourage and demonize any exploration in order to shape the individual’s view of exploration as dangerous, shameful, and unnatural.

What they fail to acknowledge is the research, that shows their precious conversion therapy was correlated with a steep rise in suicide attempts compared to a group of the same population that didn’t experience conversion therapy. Another study done in 2018 by The Family Acceptance Project found that rates of suicide attempts in LGBTQ+ youth and young adults averaged 22 per cent – jumped to 48 per cent for individuals whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation, and to 63 per cent when attempts to change sexual orientation were made by both family and outside sources (like conversion therapy). Makes it easier to understand why so many people don’t come out until adulthood, right?

These studies do not show that being queer leads to suicide attempts. They indicate that when a person experiences homophobia and/or transphobia in and/or outside their home, their likelihood to commit suicide increases. The research shows that conversion therapy is not likely to succeed in either of its purposes, and that it is harmful enough to the individuals experiencing it that their risk for attempting suicide can nearly triple. If the goal of those who use that narrative is truly to reduce attempts of suicide in those who identify as LGBTQ+, they need to look at the research and take accountability for their contributions to those avoidable attempt statistics. The parents too, but that is a rabbit trail for another article.

I am incredibly encouraged by the fact that the Saskatoon city council passed their ban on conversion therapy through Bylaw 9747 in a nearly unanimous 9-1 vote. I am encouraged by the fact that Regina Mayor Sandra Masters told CTV she would be in support of a similar ban in Regina, and welcomed people to bring the topic before the Community Wellness Committee. I am encouraged to see so many people actively questioning the way things are done, thinking critically on potential solutions for the present and future, and using evidence from valid scientific research to guide their judgement. These changes not only send an unignorable message to those who support conversion therapy and the ideology behind it, they are also history-making changes with the potential to save lives.

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