A damning study has found that attempts to change a transgender person’s gender identity, known as conversion therapy, is associated with a higher risk of suicide attempts.
The research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, is believed to be the first to show an association between exposure to gender identity conversion efforts and adverse mental health outcomes specifically among transgender adults in the United States.
The study builds on previous work published last month by the same researchers documenting the widespread prevalence (13.5%) among the US transgender population of having experienced gender identity conversion efforts by therapists, counsellors, and religious advisors.
“The rate of previous suicide attempts among transgender people in the United States is extremely high, with 41 percent reporting that they have had that experience,” said Dr. Alex Keuroghlian, senior author of the study who directs the National LGBT Health Education Center at The Fenway Institute and the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Gender Identity Program.
“What this new study shows is that transgender people who are exposed to conversion efforts anytime in their lives have more than double the odds of attempting suicide compared with those who have never experienced efforts by professionals to convert their gender identity from transgender to cisgender.”
Findings from the study support recommendations by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advising mental health care providers that gender identity conversion efforts at any age are harmful.
Lifetime exposure to gender identity conversion efforts was associated with a broad range of adverse mental health outcomes, including suicidal ideation in the previous 12 months and severe psychological distress in the previous month. Additionally, associations with adverse mental health outcomes held true whether the person conducting the conversion efforts was a secular therapist or a religious advisor.
“One of the most alarming findings from this study was the association between exposure to gender identity conversion efforts during childhood and a four-fold increased odds of lifetime suicide attempts,” said Dr Jack Turban, resident physician in psychiatry at The Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital and lead author of the study.
“This is important because some experts continue to advocate for gender identity conversion efforts for young children. We hope our findings contribute to ongoing legislative efforts to ban gender identity conversion efforts.”
The study uses data from the 2015 US Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and includes responses from over 27,000 transgender people. It’s estimated that nearly 200,000 transgender people in the US have been exposed to gender identity conversion efforts.
So-called conversion therapy is also used to attempt to change LGBTQ people’s sexuality. The World Psychiatric Association, the Psychological Society of South Africa and many other mental health bodies have asserted that these practices don’t work and are both dangerous and unethical.