Kerala student’s suicide puts focus on dubious ‘conversion therapy’
The suicide of a 21-year-old queer woman from Kerala, who claimed that she had been taken to multiple de-addiction centres over three months against her will, in an effort to cure her of her non-heterosexual orientation, has drawn attention to the dubious practice of conversion therapy practised by mental health professionals in the country, experts have said.
The body of the Kannur University-affiliated college student was found in Goa earlier last week. She had visited the state with three friends on March 21, but got stuck there on account of the lockdown that was imposed three days later. Gargi H., a friend of the student, said that she was undergoing treatment for depression before her family took her to the de-addiction centres.
In a Facebook video that the queer woman posted in March, she narrated how she was put on heavy medication at the centres without her consent. The student had come out to her family as a bisexual woman recently. “The post mortem report has confirmed that (the student) died as a result of the hanging and no foul play is suspected,” Police Inspector of the Calangute police station, Nolasco Raposo, said.
Deepa Vasudevan, co-founder of Kerala-based Sahayatrika, an organization that works with lesbian/bisexual women and transmen said, “Parents of queer or trans people often send them to psychiatrists or psychologists to “cure” them of their sexual orientation or gender identity, to make them “normal.” We have seen this practice in many of our crisis interventions.”
As per the Mental Healthcare Act 2017, which came into effect in July 2018, an adult person cannot be treated for any mental health condition without their express consent, or that of a nominated representative in case they either lack the capacity to make decisions or pose a danger to themselves and others. A representative can only be nominated by the person requiring treatment.
Conversion therapy — which is considered unacceptable practice in psychiatric disciplines today — has historically used medication, and other practices like Electroconvulsive Therapy and chemical castration to cure persons of their homosexuality.
According to psychiatrist Dr Soumitra Pathare, “While no provision outlaws conversion therapy, it is a clear violation of the Act.” According to Pathare, who was one of the architects of the Act, the law — predicated on the consent of the person undergoing treatment, as well as an insistence that mental healthcare practitioners should only follow treatments which are approved in the field of their profession — can be interpreted as being clearly against conversion therapy.
What’s more, in 2018, the Indian Psychiatric Society released a statement that homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder. This was in line with the position of the American Psychiatric Association and the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organisation, which removed homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders in 1973 and 1992, respectively. In 2018, the Supreme Court of India also struck down a colonial law that criminalized consensual adult same-sex intercourse.
However, according to Raj Mariwala, director of Mariwala Health Initiative, which focuses on making mental health accessible to marginalized persons and communities, psychiatric disciplines have a history of violence against members of the LGBTQI communities. Conversion therapy, like past practices of lobotomy, admission in asylums and ECT, is part of that violence and has never really died down.
“Psy-disciplines and practices classify things as normal and abnormal. If you start with pathologising something like homosexuality as abnormal, it leads us to the place where treatment is required,” Mariwala said.