The science is in. According to a new Harvard Medical School study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, conversion therapy leads to “adverse mental health outcomes, including suicide attempts” for trans people subjected to the harmful, discredited practice.
Over 27,000 transgender people were included in this study, making it much larger than most previous inquiries into the topic. Researchers say that in speaking to this population, their team discovered that trans survivors of conversion therapy “have more than double the odds of attempting suicide compared with those who have never experienced efforts by professionals to convert their gender identity.”
“We are finding that this practice is associated with significantly increased risk of harm, including serious psychological distress and potentially fatal suicide attempts,” Dr. Alex Keuroghlian, director of the National LGBT Health Education Center at the Fenway Institute and the study’s co-author, told NBC News.
It gets even more troubling for trans youth. Transgender people who underwent conversion therapy before the age of 10 are four times more likely to attempt suicide than the general trans population.
Keuroghlian, who also works in the Gender Identity Program in Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry, says transgender people are already disproprtionately likely to attempt to take their own lives, “with 41 percent reporting they have had that experience.” This widely cited statistic includes individuals who have not been subjected to conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy, also known as “reparative therapy,” is a term referring to a loosely defined set of practices ranging from talk therapy all the way to shock treatment and water torture. It has been condemned by every reputable U.S. medical association and is illegal in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
While Keuroghlian reiterates that conversion therapy simply doesn’t work, Dr. Jack Turban, the study’s lead author, says the findings are especially troubling “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,” he says.
The study isn’t the first to find that conversion therapy is potentially deadly for queer and transgender people. Earlier this year, a report from the Trevor Project found that 41 percent of LGBTQ+ young people who have faced attempts to change their identities considered taking their lives in the past year.
The rate of suicidal ideation was even more elevated for trans and gender nonconfirming respondents, 57 percent of whom said they either considered ending their lives in the past 12 months or attempted to do so.
But even despite attempts to ban the dangerous practice, conversion therapy remains legal in most of the country. A previous study by the same research team found that nearly 200,000 transgender people living in the U.S. have been subjected to a form of conversion therapy at some point in their lives. The practice is most popular in the plains and mountain west — states like Wyoming and South Dakota.
According to the Harvard Medical School study, secular therapists and counselors are responsible for two-thirds of conversion therapy efforts. Only a third are conducted by religious advisors.