NC should ban ‘conversion therapy’ for LGBTQ minors

Legislators propose expanding protections for LGBTQ community

Mental health and LGBTQ+ advocates spoke about three new bills outside of the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday, April 16 ,2019. Each bill would increase protections for LGBTQ+ citizens and one would ban "conversion therapy" for minors.
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Mental health and LGBTQ+ advocates spoke about three new bills outside of the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday, April 16 ,2019. Each bill would increase protections for LGBTQ+ citizens and one would ban "conversion therapy" for minors.

Most therapists across the United States understand that it’s harmful to attempt to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet here in North Carolina and in many other states, some therapists are continuing to prey on families by pushing so-called “conversion therapy” onto the vulnerable and misinformed. That’s why I support the Mental Health Protection Act, which was just introduced in the General Assembly and would protect young people in our state from this dangerous, debunked practice.

As a therapist who works with young people, including LGBTQ young people, I know that there are few practices that have hurt LGBTQ children more than this type of “therapy.” The practice can include the use of shame, verbal abuse, and even aversion techniques like electric shocks, which survivors often say makes them feel like they are being “taught to hate themselves.” The emotional and psychological trauma can endure for the rest of a young person’s life, putting them at risk of severe long-term health impacts, including depression, substance abuse, and feelings of guilt, helplessness, and isolation that can lead to suicide.

In 15 states and the District of Columbia, licensed mental health professionals are explicitly blocked from subjecting LGBTQ minors to “conversion therapy.” That’s a great start – but it leaves 35 states, including North Carolina, without protection from the abuse. The Williams Institute estimates that in the United States, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults have been subjected to “conversion therapy,” 350,000 of whom endured the treatment as minors.

It’s not just these 15 states that understand action is needed: Every major mental health association in the country have taken public stances against “conversion therapy.” In addition, a broad, bipartisan majority of North Carolinians oppose subjecting minors to the practice.

LGBTQ people cannot will themselves to become straight or cisgender any easier than non-LGBTQ people can will themselves to become a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Mental health professionals cannot scare, shame, or physically harm people into these changes either. A person may change their behaviors, but the emotional and psychological damage done could be lethal.

When you take a step back, the fuller picture of what “conversion therapy” is really about comes into focus: The practice is motivated by a fundamental lack of understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ people. It is rooted in the false belief that LGBTQ people can be “converted,” and even more insidiously, in the conviction that LGBTQ people should be “converted.”

It’s my job as a licensed psychologist to meet my patients where they are and help them grow in their understanding of themselves. The core of my ethical standards require that I do no harm to my patients and honor their autonomy and individual identities. My office should be a safe place for people to be vulnerable, create change, and experience personal growth. This could never be done if I believed that a fundamental piece of their identity should be changed. I hold myself to a high standard when it comes to ensuring safe, supportive care for my patients – and the state of North Carolina should hold all licensed mental health professionals to a similar standard. We cannot stand by while therapists in our state continue to subject LGBTQ minors to dangerous and truly unethical practices like “conversion therapy.”

Children and families have a right to expect that a therapist practicing under an NC state license will not put them at risk of severe harm. It is our shared responsibility to ensure the safety of our friends, family members, and neighbors by doing everything possible to protect them from these damaging practices.

Every young person — including LGBTQ young people — should be treated with respect and dignity. It is our duty to support and care for LGBTQ youth as they are.

Dr. Kimberley Benton is the Owner and Director of Oak City Psychology in Raleigh and a Licensed Psychologist in North Carolina.