Transgender Conversion Therapy Linked to Suicide Attempts, with Practice 'Rooted Solely in Discrimination and Hate'

Transgender people who undergo the widely discredited practice of gender conversion therapy are more likely to attempt suicide, research has revealed.

The approach has no scientific basis but is sold as a way to change a person from transgender to cisgender. Techniques can range from talking therapies through to aversion techniques, such as electroshock, chemical, and deprivation treatments.

Similar methods are used in attempts to change a person's sexual orientation, even though this is also not possible.

In the U.S., approximately 1.4 million adults identify as transgender—the term used to describe a person whose gender identity is different to that which they were assigned at birth. For instance, a person with a penis assigned as a man at birth identifying as a woman.

The study involved 27,715 transgender adults in the U.S. who completed a survey in 2015. Researchers asked participants whether a psychologist, counselor or religious advisor had tried to force them to identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, or "stop you being trans." The survey also explored the mental health effects of undergoing the mis-sold treatment.

The respondents lived across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and U.S. military bases overseas. On average, they were 31 years old, and 42.8 percent were assigned male at birth. Overall, 14 percent of respondents had been exposed to conversion therapy.

Of the 71.3 percent who had spoken to a professional about their gender identity, 19.6 per cent said they had tried gender identity conversion. Around one percent of this subcategory had the therapy before the age of 10.

Those who were exposed to the practice were more likely to have tried to take their lives compared with those who had discussed being trans with a professional, but who had not undergone conversion therapy.

Researchers also found a significant link between respondents who had conversion therapy before the age of 10 and suicide attempts.

Disadvantaged participants were more likely to have experienced conversion therapy. It is not clear whether this group was more likely to receive therapy or if it was "so damaging" they were not able to fulfil their potential at school or at work, the authors said.

They noted that trans people are exposed to conversion therapy at high rates in the U.S., perhaps even more than those who try so-called gay conversion therapy—although it is not possible to make an accurate comparison. They argue this may be because transgender people are more likely to interact with clinical professionals to seek medical and surgical treatments to help their bodies to align with their gender identities.

Undergoing conversion therapy likely places a person under stress by worsening the stigma society makes them feel about their gender identity, the authors argued.

The study, which is the first to focus exclusively on the impact of conversion therapy on the mental health of people who are transgender, was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Alex Keuroghlian, senior author of the study and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Newsweek he was surprised to find there was no difference in risk of attempting suicide between those who visited secular therapist versus religious advisor.

"It's not the religious aspect that increases risk of suicide attempts but rather any efforts to make transgender people cisgender," explained Keuroghlian, who is also director of the National LGBT Health Education Center at The Fenway Institute.

transgender, trans, lgbt, lgbtq, getty, stock,
Researchers have investigated the mental health effects of gender identity conversion therapy. This stock image shows a transgender flag painted on a person's hand. Getty

A number of U.S. states have banned such interventions, and leading medical organizations—including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Academy of Pediatrics—have stated that no one should seek out conversion therapy to change their gender or sexual identity.

Jack Turban, lead author and resident physician in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Mclean Hospital, told Newsweek: "We wanted to provide concrete data to support these policy statements.

"We hope that this research will help state legislators understand the magnitude of this problem and the need to pass bans on gender identity conversion efforts."

Experts not involved in the study praised the work, but lamented the findings, which they argued should bolster efforts to ban the practice.

Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician who has treated patients who have suffered the effects of gay conversion therapy, called the study "groundbreaking" in an interview with Newsweek.

She said the findings were not surprising, but "further validate the dangers of conversion therapy, as conversion therapy can lead to long-term psychological distress and increased risk of suicide."

She continued: "It is clear conversion therapy targeting people who are LGBT is rooted solely in discrimination and hate without any scientific evidence."

Amy E. Green, director of research for LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization The Trevor Project, told Newsweek: "Despite a lack of evidence of effectiveness and a growing body of evidence documenting associated harm, LGBTQ individuals, including youth, continue to be exposed to conversion efforts."

She said the study mirrored the findings of the The Trevor Project's 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, which revealed rates of attempting suicide in the past year were more than double among those who experienced conversion efforts.

"Among transgender and non-binary youth, 57 percent who underwent conversion efforts reported a suicide attempt in the last year," Green said.

"Those considering conversion efforts for themselves or their child should be aware that there is no reputable empirical evidence indicating that it effectively changes gender identity, and growing empirical evidence that it is associated with poorer lifetime mental health," she stressed.

"On the other hand, health and mental health treatments that are based on accepting and affirming principles have a strong evidence-base and allow LGBTQ individuals to thrive," said Green.

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.

You can contact The Trevor Project TrevorLifeline 24/7 if you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal at 1-866-488-7386. Counseling is also available 24/7 via chat every day at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting 678-678.

Transgender Conversion Therapy Linked to Suicide Attempts, with Practice 'Rooted Solely in Discrimination and Hate' | Health