The White House took a major step recently when President Obama called for an end to “conversion” or “reparative” therapies for LGBTQ youth. These types of therapies aim to “cure” homosexuals and those on the transgender spectrum, with the end goal of allowing LGBTQ individuals to discover their “true” heterosexual selves and typical gender expression.

The American Psychiatric Association has opposed conversion therapy for years, with a statement released in 2000 stating that: “psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or ‘repair’ homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable. Furthermore, anecdotal reports of ‘cures’ are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm. In the last four decades, ‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, [the American Psychiatric Association] recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”

It is a core ethical principle for practitioners to do no harm – and so-called conversion or "reparative" therapies are extremely harmful. Practicing these types of therapies with struggling clients is antithetical to the goals of the beneficent clinician. Instead of working towards improving the client's state of mind, conversion therapies often exacerbate their reasons for seeking treatment.

The psychiatric association goes on to state the potential risks of conversion therapy, including increased depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior. Conversion therapy is damaging for members of the LGBTQ community struggling to accept their identity. Rather than participating in an acceptance-based therapeutic approach that helps the client come to terms with and accept his or her identity, this approach essentially teaches the client that his or her gender identity or sexual orientation is inherently wrong, and the only way to lead a fulfilling life is to change who they are to fit in with societal norms.

It is important to note that while conversion therapy today is unquestionably unethical, it is rooted in a deep history of viewing gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons as suffering from a diagnosable disorder. It was not until 1987 that homosexuality was removed entirely from the psychiatric association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), while gender identity disorder is still the categorical diagnosis for transgendered individuals. This longstanding history of viewing LGBTQ individuals as suffering from an illness rather than simply falling along the spectrum of sexuality and gender expressions has resulted in these so-called conversion treatments poised to perpetuate their suffering. It is only through increased public support and acceptance of the LGBTQ community that the longstanding discrimination and resulting reduced mental well-being can be eradicated.

While it is quite monumental that a denouncement of this psychologically damaging therapy came from the highest political figure in our country, it has really been a long time coming. The more visible acceptance becomes of the LGBTQ community, the more hope there is for young people struggling with accepting their place on the LGBTQ spectrum. The self-acceptance that blossoms with the visibility of increased acceptance from political leaders and allies across the country and the world cannot be overstated.

Given the negative messages that have been delivered to LGBTQ individuals for decades, it is not surprising that this population has extremely high rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses compared to non-LGBTQ individuals. They have been marginalized by some members of the heteronormative population, including maleficent clinicians espousing this brand of unethical conversion therapy. They have been taught to believe that they are less than or unworthy in some way, simply because of one aspect of who they are: their sexual or gender identity. As we continue the fight for human rights for all regardless of sexual or gender identity, it is likely that we will see rates of depression and anxiety fall amongst the LGBTQ community. The more visible the fight becomes, the more likely the message of acceptance is likely to reach those who need it most.

Andrea Segal is research coordinator at the Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics of Behavioral Health Care at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

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