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Conversion therapy in 2017?!

Updated: Jul 27, 2019

A few days ago the UK Council for Psychotherapy released a memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK.  The document was backed by the British Psychological Society (BPS), NHS England, NHS Scotland and many other organisations responsible for mental health care.

The memorandum calls for putting an end to conversion therapy in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Conversion therapy is defined as any therapeutic model attempting to change or suppress the sexual orientation or gender identity of a client.

A bit of history

In the 1950s and 1960s conversion therapy was widely spread and therapists attempted to “cure” male homosexuality by showing clients pictures of naked men and giving them an electric shock or medication to induce vomit.Homosexuality was still considered a “mental disorder” and despite its inefficacy, the practice continued for years (click here to read more).

It wasn’t until 1987 that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The World Health Organisation (WHO) did not remove homosexuality from the ICD classification until 1992, when the ICD-10 was published.

What do we know today?

In the UK there have been countless campaigns, in the last few years, in an attempt to increase awareness and advocate for LGBT rights. Topics that people used to consider taboo are now being discussed, giving rise to interesting debates in the hope to create a climate of open dialogue and fight the stigma that still surrounds people belonging to the LGBT community.

From 1987 to today the public’s view on same sex relationships improved significantly and positive change has been gradually brought about, which culminated in the legislation to allow same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland being passed by the parliament in 2013-2014 (read: Gay rights 50 years on: 10 ways in which the UK has changed).

With the positive shift towards more acceptance and (hopefully) less stigma surrounding the LGBT community, it is puzzling to hear that conversion therapy is still an option in the UK.

There is an important distinction to be considered when thinking about “conversion therapy”, i.e. that this is different from psychological therapy offered to support a person through a period of uncertainty around their sexuality and sexual identity.

The main difference, in my opinion, is in the underlying assumptions guiding the two lines of treatment. In the former (conversion therapy), there is usually a basic assumption that a certain sexual orientation or sexual identity (e.g. being homosexual) is somewhat “wrong” or a “problem” on some level. Thus, the focus of the “therapy” would be to change this sexual orientation or sexual identity. This can be damaging and unethical as it is based on a form of “prejudice” about one’s identity/sexual orientation, and it may ultimately cause more distress to the person.

In the latter (psychological therapy), the focus of the therapy would usually be centred on trying to understand the uncertainty around the person’s sexuality and sexual identity, in order to support them through the distress that this (the uncertainty) may be causing. The work would not be focused on attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation/identity, but on trying to understand the source of the distress and work collaboratively with the person to take positive steps towards reducing this distress.

I hope that the memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK can be a first step towards stopping the practice of “conversion therapy” and advocating for LGBT rights to reduce the stigma that, unfortunately, still surrounds the LGBT community.

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