Gay conversion therapy linked to heightened depression and lower resilience in later life


A recent study uncovered heightened depressive symptoms and internalized homophobia in older same-sex attracted men with prior experiences of conversion therapy. The findings were published in The Gerontologist.

As study authors Steven Meanley and his fellow researchers point out, homosexual men who are now reaching older adulthood belong to the first generation to navigate society as openly same-sex-attracted individuals and the first to defy traditional heterosexist societal rules. The researchers were motivated to explore how these challenges may have impacted the mental health of this group of older gay men, particularly those who went through conversion therapy.

“Rooted in stigmatizing beliefs toward homosexuality, conversion therapies were developed to minimize or eliminate sexual minorities’ same-sex attractions . . . Though offered by a minority of counselors, therapists, and religious leaders, prominent scientific institutions like the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Social Workers have denounced conversion therapy as dangerous, ineffective, and unethical (Maccio, 2011; Meanley et al., 2019b).),” Meanley and associates say.

A study was conducted using data from the Healthy Aging Sub-study of the Multicenter Aids Cohort Study (MACS). The MACS is a study examining the HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men (MSM), where participants complete psychological assessments every six months. The sample for the current study included 1,156 MSM over the age of 40, with an average age of 62 years old. Assessments included depressive symptoms, internalized homophobia, and resilience. Participants were also asked to report whether they had ever taken part in conversion therapy.

Of the sample, 89% identified as homosexual and 15% had prior conversion therapy experience. The most popular type of conversion therapy was psychotherapy (67%), followed by group-based therapy (39%), and prayer/religion-based therapy (30%).

An analysis showed that those who experienced conversion therapy presented with heightened depressive symptoms and lower resilience, compared to those with no conversion therapy experience. Those who reported a past conversion therapy experience were also more likely to have two or more psychosocial diagnoses.

Conversion therapy experience was also associated with higher internalized homophobia. The authors reflect, “in a prior MACS analysis, researchers observed that MSM were largely able to reconcile experiences of internalized homophobia over the life course (Herrick et al., 2013). Given that conversion therapy experiences were associated with above average internalized homophobia in our sample, our findings suggest that these experiences may thwart the psychological processes that assist MSM in reconciling internalized homophobia over time.”

Close to 30% of the men indicated that the conversion therapy was “either a little or not at all their decision” and the average age to have undergone conversion therapy was age 23.

Despite efforts by some states to make conversion therapy prohibited by law, the authors stress that more needs to be done to ensure that even non-licensed professionals cannot legally conduct conversion therapy.

“Though our study provides important insights into the potential dangers of conversion therapies,” the researchers say, “these findings may offer only a glimpse into the magnitude of harm imposed by these practices. Specifically, the severity and chronicity of specific types (e.g., aversion or shock therapies) of conversion therapy may elicit enduring health consequences that require greater or more potent forms of intervention for psychological recovery over the remaining life course.”

The study, “Lifetime Exposure to Conversion Therapy and Psychosocial Health Among Midlife and Older Adult Men Who Have Sex with Men”, was authored by Steven Meanley, Sabina A. Haberlen, Chukwuemeka N. Okafor, Andre Brown, Mark Brennan-Ing, Deanna Ware, James E. Egan, Linda A. Teplin, Robert K. Bolan, Mackey R. Friedman, and Michael W. Plankey.


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