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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Conversion Therapy" Is Judged Consumer Fraud

Over the last several years, several states, including New Jersey and California, have passed legislation prohibiting mental health professionals from using “conversion therapy” with minors. “Conversion therapy” is an alternative mental health treatment that purports to change same-sex attraction to opposite-sex attraction through various techniques like cuddling, nude exercise, and beating an object representing one’s mother. These methods have not shown to be effective in accomplishing anything but misery for clients, and this is not surprising, as current thought regards homosexuality as an unlearned behavior, a normal aspect of human sexuality, and a characteristic of a significant portion of any population. Considering how little professional organizations like to be regulated from outside, it is significant that national professional groups have supported the prohibition of the treatment and have emphasized their positions about the nature of same-sex attraction, about the inappropriateness of attempts to change it, and about the ineffectiveness of “conversion” methods.

Nevertheless, there are still many states where “conversion therapy” is not prohibited, and even where prohibitions exist, they exist only for licensed mental health professionals working with minors. Members of the clergy are not prohibited from using the treatment for minors, and persons over 18 may choose for the treatment to be done by licensed mental health practitioners if they wish.

Because there are many ongoing concerns about “conversion therapy” and its unlicensed practitioners, some organizations have chosen to approach the problem by means of lawsuits. An important judicial finding--  one that I hope will be a real breakthrough—was reported today at This story, also reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center (, described a lawsuit brought by S.P.L.C. on behalf of several victims against the organization Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a New Jersey group that advocates and offers “conversion therapy”.
In the course of this ongoing suit, Superior Court Judge Peter Barsio has ruled that JONAH may not state that homosexuality is a mental disorder or disease. He also ruled that reporting “success” statistics when advertising or selling “conversion therapy” is in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer report, the Southern Poverty Law Center plans to bring evidence that JONAH defrauded clients by advertising its services in terms of discredited theories.

As far as I know, this is the first case in which a treatment billed as a psychotherapy has been held subject to consumer fraud protections. Often, fraudulent actions go unpunished when a service provider claims that he or she did not know that a service was not effective, or when a victim cannot prove that he or she was harmed. In consumer fraud, it’s possible for misleading information to be given simply by the omission of important points (such as the positions of the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association about homosexuality). With respect to psychotherapy, it would be fraudulent to omit information about possible adverse events associated with a treatment—and professional therapists are supposed to provide informed consent documents communicating such matters to a client before treatment begins.

This does seem like a legal breakthrough--  but can we expect that the “conversion therapy” lawsuit will lead to successful suits in cases where children were treated with Attachment Therapy, or received chelation therapy for autism? I am afraid these events won’t happen tomorrow. The thing is, the legislation prohibiting “conversion therapy” for minors, and the suit brought by the S.P.L.C. against JONAH, were supported by well-organized, politically-savvy, and well-funded adults whose own same-sex orientations made them deeply concerned about the harm done by the treatment. Those adults garnered the support of professional organizations and put their skills and energies into preparing legislation and lawsuit. In a time of increasing commitment to civil rights for people of all orientations, this was relatively easy to accomplish, given the abilities of those who contributed.

But who will do the same tasks to bring legal redress for children and adolescents who have been ill-treated in the name of psychotherapy? If they are minors, they can’t bring suit themselves, but instead are dependent on the parents or guardians who made the decision to seek the harmful treatment—adults who are likely to ignore any resulting problems or to blame the child for them. When minors pass the age of 18, and “age out” of the services they have been receiving, they find themselves struggling to make a life--  often with little educational background—as time hurries by and statutes of limitations quickly begin to apply. When they get older and manage to settle down a bit, they find that it is too late for them to sue. Or, alternatively, they want to forget all about what happened to them and try to make up for the time they lost if they were in residential treatment. These victims have no support group or organized representatives who will act for them or help them act.

Other alternative psychotherapies for children are consumer fraud, just as “conversion therapy”  is. But how will we bring that fact home to those who advocate potentially harmful treatments? Without an answer to that question, it seems that Judge Barsio’s admirable decisions must be received with slightly modified rapture.

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