Association Between Recalled Exposure to Gender Identity Conversion Efforts and Psychological Distress and Suicide Attempts Among Transgender Adults

JAMA Psychiatry. 2020 Jan 1;77(1):68-76. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.2285.

Abstract

Importance: Gender identity conversion efforts (GICE) have been widely debated as potentially damaging treatment approaches for transgender persons. The association of GICE with mental health outcomes, however, remains largely unknown.

Objective: To evaluate associations between recalled exposure to GICE (by a secular or religious professional) and adult mental health outcomes.

Design, setting, and participants: In this cross-sectional study, a survey was distributed through community-based outreach to transgender adults residing in the United States, with representation from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and US military bases overseas. Data collection occurred during 34 days between August 19 and September 21, 2015. Data analysis was performed from June 8, 2018, to January 2, 2019.

Exposure: Recalled exposure to GICE.

Main outcomes and measures: Severe psychological distress during the previous month, measured by the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (defined as a score ≥13). Measures of suicidality during the previous year and lifetime, including ideation, attempts, and attempts requiring inpatient hospitalization.

Results: Of 27 715 transgender survey respondents (mean [SD] age, 31.2 [13.5] years), 11 857 (42.8%) were assigned male sex at birth. Among the 19 741 (71.3%) who had ever spoken to a professional about their gender identity, 3869 (19.6%; 95% CI, 18.7%-20.5%) reported exposure to GICE in their lifetime. Recalled lifetime exposure was associated with severe psychological distress during the previous month (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 1.56; 95% CI, 1.09-2.24; P < .001) compared with non-GICE therapy. Associations were found between recalled lifetime exposure and higher odds of lifetime suicide attempts (aOR, 2.27; 95% CI, 1.60-3.24; P < .001) and recalled exposure before the age of 10 years and increased odds of lifetime suicide attempts (aOR, 4.15; 95% CI, 2.44-7.69; P < .001). No significant differences were found when comparing exposure to GICE by secular professionals vs religious advisors.

Conclusions and relevance: The findings suggest that lifetime and childhood exposure to GICE are associated with adverse mental health outcomes in adulthood. These results support policy statements from several professional organizations that have discouraged this practice.