The Dangers Of Conversion Therapy: Statistics, Study, And Controversy

By: Robert Porter

Updated October 14, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

You likely know that therapy can be a crucial and valuable resource for people living with mental health conditions. There are many different types of beneficial therapy. As society gains a better understanding of mental health, people may better understand why therapy can be helpful and how to connect with licensed mental health professionals. Therapy can truly improve the quality of life and bring hope and healing. However, while there are many types of beneficial therapy, one type that is not beneficial, does not work, is not a legitimate form of therapy, and may even be dangerous is “conversion therapy.” Conversion therapy is an umbrella term for attempts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people who are LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or asexual). Virtually all of the major professional medical and mental health associations strongly oppose conversion therapy. Research shows that conversion therapy is ineffective and potentially harmful.

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What is Conversion Therapy?

Conversion therapy refers to attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. For example, conversion therapy may involve efforts or attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation from lesbian, gay, or bisexual to heterosexual, or change a person’s gender identity from transgender or nonbinary to cisgender (the gender that matches the sex assigned at birth).

Conversion therapy is sometimes referred to by other names, such as reparative therapy, reorientation therapy, sexual orientation change efforts, gender identity change efforts, and more. Sometimes religious or other groups use different terms for conversion efforts. No matter what term is used, research consistently shows that conversion therapy efforts do not work and can be significantly harmful. In addition to their ineffectiveness and possible danger, conversion attempts are typically not guided by licensed mental health professionals and are likely to use unmonitored practices.

The Strong Opposition and Rejection of Conversion Therapy By Mental Health Professions

The American Psychiatric Association and numerous other mental health and medical associations have stated that same-sex orientation and variable gender identity are not mental health disorders. The American Psychiatric Association has formally and strongly stated that no credible evidence supports that mental health intervention can change sexual orientation. They also state that from a mental health perspective, sexual orientation does not need to be changed. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services emphasizes that sexual orientation and gender identity are not mental illness and so do not, in themselves, warrant mental health interventions.

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Dangers of Conversion Therapy

Research shows that conversion therapy is strongly linked to negative mental health outcomes, including depression, increased substance abuse, and more serious attempts of suicide, among other serious concerns. Additionally, those whose families or religious groups support conversion therapy may feel a harmful sense of rejection. They may feel shame and a negative stigma about how they identify. They may also suffer from fractured relationships or broken religious connections resulting from the non-acceptance of their identity. Such feelings of rejection can have damaging effects on mental health.

If Conversion Therapy is Harmful and Does Not Work, Why Does It Exist?

If there is clear evidence that conversion therapy does not change sexual orientation or gender identity, people might wonder why it exists. There is no clear justification. Still, research shows that approximately 700,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives. The practice, even though it is scientifically and medically ineffective, potentially harmful, and illegal in many states, may still take place because people are uncomfortable with gender identity/expression and sexual orientations that do not match those of the majority in society.

Wondering If Conversion Therapy Is Dangerous?
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Some with religious or moral beliefs may fuel conversion therapy (or similar efforts) despite data indicating the uselessness and harm of the efforts. Research shows that some parents believe that the best way to help their children thrive and survive is to make them fit in with peers in the majority. Some parents may feel they are protecting their children from what they worry or perceive will be a more difficult or dangerous life and future.  However, cultural or religious beliefs, family concerns, and fears do not make conversion therapy scientifically, medically, and ethically credible.

Despite those who support conversion therapy, if you are LGBTQIA+, please know that you have a great amount of societal support and many allies who are just a click or phone call away. The LGBT National Hotline offers an anonymous, safe space to support people of all ages and can be reached at 888-843-4564 and www.glbthotline.org

Promoting the Mental Health of LGBTQIA+ Individuals Through Acceptance and Support

While conversion therapy is considered ineffective and even harmful, acceptance and a supportive environment from family and loved ones, as well as society, are a protective factor for individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) or who are gender diverse.

People who are LGBTQIA+ may face increased challenges that can harm mental health. For example, they may experience rejection, discrimination, trauma, harassment, labeling, stereotyping, bullying, assault, abuse (verbal, emotional, or physical), hate crimes or intense fear of hate crimes, and more.

To support the mental health of those who are LGBTQIA+, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has several helpful suggestions. Loved ones, families, friends, and allies in the community can play a critical, positive role in supporting the mental wellness of people who are LGBTQIA+. First, respecting and affirming identity can offer a positive sense of acceptance. Being publicly supportive can also be helpful, as can using respectful language and terminology regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Other supportive measures include letting LGBTQIA+ family members know they are loved, keeping lines of communication open, being a role model for kindness and inclusion, showing that all people can be authentic around you, and creating safe spaces.

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Being aware of the signs of mental health disorders can help you help LGBTQIA+ loved ones (and others) who might be in need. Signs of mental illness may include feeling excessively sad, problems concentrating, confusion, extreme mood changes, prolonged feelings of irritation or anger, difficulties relating to others, changes in sleep patterns, low energy, difficulty understanding reality, changes in eating habits, changes in sex drive, excessive worry or fear, overuse or abuse of substances like drugs and alcohol, and thinking about suicide.

If you are in crisis or in danger of harming yourself, please reach out for help immediately.  The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides 24/7, free, confidential support, as well as prevention and crisis resources. It can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Hotline can connect anyone in crisis with a crisis counselor; text “HELLO” to 741741.

If you are concerned with your mental health or that of someone else, please reach out for help. Your healthcare team (including a primary care doctor or staff) can be a good resource to connect you with help. Online therapy is another excellent resource. Many therapists make a point of saying that they are LGBTQIA+ allies; they can offer you support without judgement. At BetterHelp, you can connect online with licensed mental health professionals who offer convenient, accessible, affordable, compassionate support and therapy.

If a loved one is living with a mental illness, there are steps you can take to support them. Offering to help them find a licensed mental health provider can be a supportive and important step. Expressing your concern, support, and reassurance that you care about them can be a source of strength, as can reassuring them that help and effective treatments are available. Offering to help them with everyday tasks and spending time with them can also help them heal. You can show support by treating them with respect and compassion. There are good resources available for how to speak about mental health concerns and finding help for mental illness. There are also hotlines and websites available to specifically help and support people who are LGBTQIA+ and to offer information to their allies.

Finding the Right Licensed Mental Health Professional if You Identify as LGBTQIA+

Finding a therapist who is a good fit for you can be an important step in addressing your mental health concerns. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) has suggestions for finding a therapist who is a good fit. Many therapists are inclusive and are allies of the LGBTQIA+ community. You can look for information on their websites, through your insurance company, from another trusted healthcare provider, or a trusted referral. Please don’t hesitate to ask questions about things that are important to you. For example, you might ask if they have experience working with those who are LGBTQIA+. NAMI suggests that if you are concerned that a therapist might use a potentially harmful, ineffective form of therapy like conversion therapy, you ask them specifically about it. You can also ask someone you trust to make the call for you. Asking questions and communication will help you find a therapist who can best meet your needs and work with you to address your mental health concerns. Working with a therapist can help you explore your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, cope with stress, understand yourself, others, and relationships, and effectively manage mental illness so that you can live a positive life.


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