Conversion therapy and its impact on mental health among LGBTQIs

Published on Oct 08, 2022 03:56 PM IST

The article has been authored by Pooja Nair, consultant therapist, Mariwala Health Initiative.

The LGBTQI+ were jubilant after the SC verdict in 2018, which abolished penalisation of people for their sexual orientation and ordered that gay sex among consenting adults is not an offence.(Photo: Samir Jana/HT (Photo for representational purposes only))
The LGBTQI+ were jubilant after the SC verdict in 2018, which abolished penalisation of people for their sexual orientation and ordered that gay sex among consenting adults is not an offence.(Photo: Samir Jana/HT (Photo for representational purposes only))
ByHindustan Times

If we live in a world where conversion therapy exists, what does that tell us? It tells us that we live in a world where there is a certain social idea of ‘normal’ gender and sexuality and if you don’t conform to it, you are seen as abnormal. Now, if you are classified as abnormal, the world is going to create ways to bring you into the ‘normal’ fold. And that is why we actually have the existence of certain forms of ‘treatments’. Gender and sexuality are part of our core selves, part of who we are. And when someone is pathologized simply for existing and is then a recipient of attempts to cure that core self, it harms their sense of self and takes a heavy toll on their mental and physical well-being. In such a context, the banning of conversion practices and terming them as professional misconduct is a crucial and welcome move.

Many readers may be familiar with the news of the suicide of Anjana Harish. She was a 21-year-old student and also an openly queer person. It has been reported that she had a very difficult relationship with her family and was also forcibly been taken to multiple de-addiction cent and mental health centres to ‘cure her bisexuality’. There is a live video from the personal Facebook account of Anjana that she posted on March 13. In that video, she openly accused her parents of physically and mentally torturing her. She also recalled incidents of solitary confinement inside a cell at a mental health centre where she was subjected to conversion therapy. Having been heavily sedated and administered many injections (no transparency on what this treatment was), she mentioned that how the whole medication made her feel dizzy most of the time, and also impaired her vision and speech. In that video, Anjana also mentioned that this whole episode of conversion therapy took a toll on her mental health. The friends who actually saw her condition first hand confirmed that she was subjected to domestic violence and torture. She was also reported to be depressed from a long time with recurring suicidal thoughts. On May 12, 2020, her friends found her dead. And at the end, I think we the larger society and the systems failed to accommodate one more queer person and we lost a member from the community.

Anjana Harish is only one among many LGBTQI+ individuals who has had to suffer conversion therapy. There are many instances of this happening and of practitioners offering these ‘services’ that have no medical or scientific basis.

Now, for a description of conversion therapy-- the term refers to a range of efforts made by unaccepting families, medical doctors, and practitioners from the mental health field to, ‘change the sexual orientation, sexual or gender identity’ of a person from a socially unacceptable one to an acceptable one. We know that what is socially acceptable is heterosexuality and conforming to gender assigned at birth (cis). There are also practitioners from the medical field including specialists like sexologists, gynaecologists, endocrinologists and those from mental health field like psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors who claim to offer these treatments. Each of them claims to offer ‘cures’ based on their particular kinds of training. So, methodologies might differ but the goal of this conversion and the harm that it causes cuts across all these.

There can also be a separate conversation on how the term ‘conversion therapy’ itself is a misnomer. There is nothing therapeutic about conversion attempts. These are all forms of harm or violence. Those who have survived this violence have reported a range of post-traumatic distress including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

In September 2022, the National Medical Commission banned any and all forms of conversion practices on LGBTQI+ persons and declared it professional misconduct. This is an important and ethical step to stop further harm and damage to LGBTQI+ individuals. To realise this important declaration, the State Mental Health Authorities (SMHA) must set up redressal systems to respond to continuing cases of conversion practices and shut them down.

For long-term change to happen, the system needs to recognise its long and unfortunate history of pathologising queer and trans people and make amends. The mental health curriculum on gender and sexuality needs to be updated and informed by the LGBTQI+ community. Mental health practitioners need to equip themselves with additional knowledge about the particular stressors of LGBTQI+ clients and how to respond in queer-affirmative ways. To that end, the Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice Resource Book (available for free) from the Mariwala Health Initiative is a crucial resource for those in the mental health space who wish to engage with gender and sexuality from a non-pathological lens and prevent further harm from conversion practices.

The article has been authored by Pooja Nair, consultant therapist, Mariwala Health Initiative.

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