Depression and Anxiety

The Detrimental Impact of Conversion “Therapy”

Cristian Palmer
Image by Cristian Palmer

Conversion therapy, also known as “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapy, refers to a range of practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Academic and medical publications often describe these practices as sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), gender identity change efforts (GICE), or a combination of both terms (SOGICE). 

Conversion therapy often involves psychotherapy, religious counseling, and more extreme measures, such as aversion therapy, which seeks to dissuade certain habits or behaviors by associating them with discomfort, pain, or disgust. Aversion therapy may use nausea-inducing pills to promote discomfort and/or vomiting while viewing erotic or suggestive images of a person of the same gender. This conditions an individual to immediately experience discomfort whenever they see queer-related images. Even more extreme cases of aversion therapy may use electric shock to induce negative associations. 

Major mental health organizations, including the American Psychological Association (APA) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), oppose and condemn conversion therapy. According to APA, “No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.”

In recent years, the discourse surrounding conversion therapy has gained traction, shedding light on the detrimental effects it can have on the mental and emotional well-being of individuals and their ability to develop healthy relationships with themselves and others.


The Emotional Toll


Conversion therapy inflicts severe emotional distress on those engaged in these practices, causing internal conflicts that may persist long after the practice has ended. The fundamental premise of conversion therapy—that being gay (LBTQ+) is a disorder or a choice—fosters feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing. 

I have witnessed the emotional toll these harmful practices take on people who have undergone conversion therapy. Depression, panic and anxiety attacks, self-hatred, and suicidality are some of the ways conversion practices emotionally impact these individuals. Those who experienced SOCE (or GICE) may also feel a deep sense of failure for not being able to change their identity. They are told that with SOCE practice they can change, which is not true. Thus, these individuals are also left feeling broken, unlovable, and ‘incurable.’ This worsens their mental health, placing them at higher risk of extreme isolation, repetitious harmful behaviors including substance abuse, or high-risk sexual activities, body dysmorphia, to name a few negative outcomes. 

Impact on Developing Meaningful Relationships


Conversion therapy often leaves individuals with a distorted self-image. It instills fear of judgment and rejection surrounding one’s authentic self. This fear can manifest as an inability, unwillingness, or reluctance to express one’s true feelings, leading to surface-level relationships that lack emotional intimacy and vulnerability.

Trust, a crucial foundation for any relationship, becomes compromised as the aftermath of conversion therapy lingers in the minds of those who have experienced it.

Struggling with Authenticity


Cultivating a healthy sense of self is crucial for overall well-being, and conversion therapy directly challenges this process. Conversion practices promote a skewed perspective on sexuality, forcing individuals to suppress their authentic identities and adopt a facade that aligns with heteronormative ideals. The internalized shame and guilt associated with being gay can lead to a fractured sense of self, making it difficult for individuals to navigate their identity, embrace who they truly are, and share that with the world.


Recovery and Healing


Recovery from the damaging effects of conversion therapy is a complex and ongoing process. My role involves creating a safe and supportive environment for individuals to explore and embrace their authentic selves. Together, we address the emotional scars left by conversion therapy, fostering self-compassion and building a positive self-image.

Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic therapy can be instrumental in helping gay men recover from the trauma of conversion therapy. These modalities reshape negative thought patterns, promote self-acceptance, and build resilience. The process of slowly restoring your ability to trust friends, family, and religious clergy (if you choose to remain involved with your faith at an accepting institution) begins in treatment with a competent therapist in this area. 

Building Authentic Relationships


The journey towards building authentic relationships post-conversion therapy involves dismantling internalized homophobia and fostering self-acceptance. Therapeutic interventions are crucial in helping individuals reframe their understanding of relationships, promoting vulnerability, and cultivating healthy communication skills. My approach when working with people who have experienced this form of trauma includes working toward self-compassion, identifying painful and harmful internal narratives, engaging in active co-constructed planning for improved social engagement, and working through deeply held internalized homophobic beliefs that have become obstacles in everyday life. 


Encouraging Connection Within the LGBTQ+ Community


The LGBTQ+ community provides a vital support system for individuals who have undergone conversion therapy. Connecting with others who share similar experiences fosters a sense of belonging and reduces feelings of isolation. Group therapy, community events, and online forums can also be invaluable resources for gay men seeking understanding and acceptance.




Conversion therapy can have a lasting impact on the mental, emotional, and relational well-being of LGBTQ+ people. Understanding these effects can help us work towards creating a more inclusive and accepting society where everyone can thrive in genuine, meaningful relationships. As a therapist, I condemn conversion therapy and staunchly advocate for its banning while also providing a safe space for individuals to heal and rediscover their authentic selves.


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