Supporting conversion therapy survivors

The harms of religion-based LGBTQA+ change and suppression practices are more severe than previously thought, according to new research that calls for better training to improve mental health and recovery support services for survivors.

Research led by La Trobe University, conducted in partnership with Macquarie University, the Brave Network, Australian LGBTIQ+ Multicultural Council and Victorian Government, included interviews with 35 Australian survivors of conversion therapy practices and 18 mental health practitioners as part of the Healing Spiritual Harms report.

They found survivors commonly experience complex, chronic trauma and PTSD symptoms, and encounter numerous barriers when attempting to access mental health support.

Lead researcher from La Trobe, Dr Timothy Jones – an authority on conversion practices – said the study is the first to include mental health practitioners and examine the impacts of both formal and informal conversion practices.

Studies show at least one in ten LGBTQA+ Australians remain vulnerable to religion-based pressures to attempt to change or suppress their sexuality and/or gender identity, despite recent moves to legislate against these practices,” Dr Jones said.

“These practices may involve formal conversion programs or therapies, but more often include informal processes such as pastoral care, interactions with religious or community leaders, prayer groups and other spiritual or cultural practices initiated within particular communities. They have been reported in communities of almost all religious and cultural backgrounds.”

Researchers found disengagement and recovery from conversion practices can be slow, and survivors may require support with:

  • Improving self-care
  • Correcting misinformation about LGBTQA+ people and communities
  • Repairing and rebuilding their social support and community networks
  • Navigating their relationship with faith
  • Recovering from the impact conversion practices had on their civic and economic participation

Barriers to accessing or engaging in care included:

  • Cost
  • Mistrust of health professionals due to past experiences
  • Shame about disclosing their involvement in conversion practices
  • A lack of confidence in health practitioners’ abilities to deal with trauma stemming from religion, culture, sexuality and/or gender identity

Study co-author from La Trobe’s Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, Associate Professor Jennifer Power, said both survivors and practitioners reported a reluctance to raise faith and spirituality in therapy.

“Most survivors struggled to find mental health practitioners who appreciated the significance of their experiences and continuing connections to culture, faith and spirituality. We recommend more training for health practitioners to be able to support survivors’ recovery, including the integration of their spirituality and LGBTQA+ identity,” Dr Power said.

“We also found survivors are likely to benefit from long term, trauma-informed care to recover from harms related to LGBTQA+ conversion practices.”

Healing Spiritual Harms was funded by the Victorian Government’s Department of Families, Fairness and Housing and the Australian Research Council (ARC). It follows 2018’s Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice report, which called for action by governments, the health sector and religious communities to better respond to people experiencing conflict between their gender identity or sexual orientation and their beliefs.

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