Is Being Ex-Gay Hazardous to Your Mental Health? The Faulty Position of the NMHA

Is it hazardous to one’s mental health to change sexual identity from gay to straight? The National Mental Health Association, the nation’s oldest and largest mental health advocacy group made this charge in a recent statement to a gay oriented publication. In a May 28 article by Adrian Brune in the Washington Blade, Lee Ann Browning-McNee, spokesperson for the NMHA was quoted as saying: “PFOX (Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays) talks a lot about gay reform, and we think those messages can actually be damaging to someone’s mental health. If you look at statistics of suicide, it’s easy to conclude that anyone who is sending out the message that homosexuality is wrong should not be at conferences supporting good mental health.”

First, a little background. PFOX, an advocacy organization for those who have or are in the process of reorienting their sexuality from gay to straight was denied space to exhibit at the NMHA’s annual convention. In this Blade article, Ms. Browning-McNee was explaining the NMHA rationale for this exclusion. So the mental health group seems to hold two related opinions: first, talking about “gay reform” is damaging to mental health and second, that anyone who asserts homosexuality is wrong or undesirable in some way undermines the mental health of others, maybe even leading to their suicide.

Let’s look at the first claim. Those who talk most about sexual identity change are those who have changed. In fact, 200 of them talked to Dr. Robert Spitzer in a research study published in the October, 2003 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior. According to Dr. Spitzer’s work, 43% of men and 47% of women were markedly or extremely depressed before entering counseling to help transition from gay to straight. After the efforts to change were completed, only 1% of men and 4% of women felt depressed at the extreme level. Other participants reported similar but less dramatic improvements in their overall outlook and mental health. Now certainly there are some people who are not helped by such efforts, but why ignore the facts that for some, gay change has had a positive influence?

On the second rationale, Ms. Browning-McNee raises the specter of suicide to discourage the expression of any negativity concerning homosexuality. This is a tactic oft used in matters of morality. When one side declares a moral position, the other side claims offense to the point of suicidal despair. Ms. McNee thinks those who are ex-gay are wrong and misguided. Is she then responsible for undermining the mental health of ex-gays? No doubt she has made some of them angry but I don’t think I would hold her responsible for a depression.

Looking at the NMHA website concerning suicide, sexual orientation is not listed as one of the risk factors. However, being depressed is mentioned as one of the primary risk factors. If depression is a risk factor and ex-gays have reduced depression compared to their prior state, then wouldn’t becoming ex-gay actually reduce the risk of suicide for these individuals?

Admittedly the relationship between suicide risk, depression and sexual orientation is complicated and unsettled. We do know from research in the Netherlands that, despite social approval, homosexuals have more depression than straights. Some investigators have reported an increased link between suicide attempts and homosexuality. Given the already known link between depression and suicide, this could make sense no matter what the social climate for gays. However, some researchers dispute the idea of a link. Notably, after a 2001 review of the studies on suicide and homosexuality, gay researcher Ritch Savin-Williams asserted, “the assertion that sexual-minority youths as a class of individuals are at increased risk for suicide is not warranted.” He also asserted that sexual minority youth are more likely to exaggerate suicide attempts than straight youth, further complicating the picture. As a psychology professor, the picture is anything but clear. One thing I can see is that more research unbridled by ideology is needed.

Alas, political concerns seem to be at work in the NMHA position concerning ex-gays. Given the evidence that for some people mental health is actually enhanced by a gay to straight transition, why wouldn’t a responsible mental health organization want to study the matter further?

Looks to me like the NMHA could be hazardous to an open mind.