Conversion Therapy Doesn't Work but Can Lead People to Suicide, Study Shows

Researchers who reviewed 20 years' worth of studies on "conversion therapy" have found no robust evidence that it can change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity.

The scientists also found that the practice, formally known as "sexual orientation change efforts," can damage the mental health of people who undergo it.

The research was carried out by experts at Coventry University in central England. It was commissioned by the U.K.'s Government Equalities Office as part of its LGBT Action Plan, which aims to end the practice in the country.

The Coventry academics reviewed studies from around the world published between 2000 and 2020.

They also interviewed 30 people—aged between 20 and 60—who had undergone conversion therapy in the U.K. to hear about their experiences.

The researchers said forms of conversion therapy were commonly based on a belief that same-sex sexual orientations and transgender identities were developmental disorders, addictions or spiritual problems.

The most common methods identified combined spiritual techniques, such as prayer "healing" or exorcisms, and psychological counselling, for example, talking therapies.

The researchers wrote: "The boundaries between religious and psychological approaches are often unclear with many combining the two in a way that could be described as pseudo-scientific."

They added that conversion therapy was most commonly carried out in religious settings but mental health professionals or family members might also provide it.

After reviewing the 20 years of published evidence and their first-hand interviews, the Coventry researchers concluded that conversion therapy was unlikely to be effective and was associated with negative health outcomes.

Numerous studies have found that very few people who undergo the practice report any lasting changes in their sexual orientation.

Furthermore, it is associated with an increase in suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and other negative outcomes, compared to people from sexual minorities who have not undergone it.

The lead author of the research, Adam Jowett, associate head of the School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences at Coventry University, said in a statement: "Many of the people we spoke to described the negative impact it had on their mental health.

"They explained how conversion efforts had reinforced social stigma associated with their sexual orientation or gender identity, which exacerbated internal conflicts they were experiencing.

"In some cases, survivors described how so-called conversion therapy led them to feel suicidal."

Laws related to the practice vary widely around the world. In the U.S., 20 states and the District of Columbia have banned conversion therapy, although most of these laws have limited scope applying only to licensed professionals as providers and minors as recipients.

Two U.S. studies from 2020 examining responses from around 1,500 sexual-minority men found that 15 percent and 7 percent respectively said they had undergone sexual orientation change efforts.

A 2019 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ adolescents in the United States will be subjected to conversion therapy with a licensed health care professional by the time they reach the age of 18.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.

San Francisco Gay Pride march
Marchers wave Gay Pride flags during the San Francisco Pride Parade on June 24, 2018. "Conversion therapy" is often based on a belief that homosexuality is a developmental disorder, addiction or spiritual problem, a study has found. Arun Nevader/Getty Images