The new Netflix documentary Pray Away is spreading awareness about the devastating impact of the “ex-gay” movement on LGBTQ teen and young adult mental health. The film examines so-called conversion therapy, and the depression, self-hatred, self-injury, and suicide that are catalyzed by this destructive and misguided practice.
To create the moving and deeply troubling film, director Kristine Stolakis interviewed both proponents and survivors of conversion therapy, including former leaders of Exodus International, one of the largest groups in the movement. Exodus disbanded in 2013, after its leaders met face to face with survivors and heard firsthand about the suffering they endured during and after conversion therapy.
Pray Away includes footage of this confrontation, as well as personal stories of survivors. While shedding light on their painful histories, the film also depicts the relief and joy these young people experience once they reject the idea that they are “broken” and move forward from a foundation of truth and self-acceptance.
What Is Conversion Therapy?
The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, defines conversion therapy as “any of several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, that could mean attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation from lesbian, gay, or bisexual to straight or their gender identity from transgender or nonbinary to cisgender.”
In addition, the Trevor Project’s conversion therapy definition includes efforts to change a person’s gender expression—for example, to make them act more stereotypically masculine or feminine; and attempts to reduce or eliminate a person’s sexual or romantic attraction or feelings toward someone of the same gender.
Conversion therapists and conversion therapy programs, which are frequently faith-based, attempt to “treat” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, often falsely claiming that it was caused by abuse and childhood trauma. The scientific community long ago disproved this notion, and has denounced conversion therapy as invalid, unethical, and extremely harmful for those who are subjected to it.
How Common Is Conversion Therapy?
Unfortunately, conversion therapy is far more common than many people realize. The film notes that an estimated 700,000 people in the United States alone have gone through a form of conversion therapy. According to The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 10 percent of LGBTQ youth have undergone conversion therapy with a religious leader or personal pastor or priest—or, less frequently, with a healthcare professional. LGBTQ teens from highly religious families and families with lower socioeconomic status are most likely to experience both home-based and external conversion efforts.
The vast majority of those who experience conversion efforts were teenagers at the time. In the Trevor Project survey, nearly 80 percent reported that they were under age 18 when they were involved with the “ex-gay” movement. And they shared that the mental health repercussions of the experience lasted into young adulthood and beyond.
The Link Between Conversion Therapy and LGBTQ Suicide Risk
Rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth are already high, due to feelings of isolation or “otherness,” societal stigma, harassment, and threats of violence. In fact, they are four times as likely as their peers to have suicidal thoughts, to make a plan for suicide, and to attempt suicide.
However, The Trevor Project’s research, published in the American Journal of Public Health, uncovered a direct connection between conversion therapy and increased suicidality. Their study found that youth who reported undergoing conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide as their LGBTQ peers who did not experience change efforts. They were also twice as likely to report having made multiple suicide attempts.
A 2018 study at San Francisco State University revealed similar statistics, showing that rates of attempted suicide by LGBTQ young people whose parents tried to change their gender identity or sexual orientation were more than double that of their peers (48 percent as compared to 22 percent of those who reported no conversion experiences). In addition, the study found that suicide attempts nearly tripled for LGBTQ youth who experienced change attempts by both parents and therapists or religious leaders.
The Impact of Family Rejection on LGBTQ Youth
Parental acceptance and affirmation are the most important predictors of LGBTQ mental health. When young people are deprived of that love and acceptance, the results can be tragic. One study found that LGBTQ young adults who experienced high levels of family rejection during adolescence were more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide, nearly six times as likely to be depressed, and more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs, as compared to their peers who did not experience rejection.
The Pray Away film depicts the agonizing emotional pain young people feel when their parents and/or religious leaders tell them they are not okay the way they are. The documentary shows how these youth, who are often raised with a strong faith, come to believe that neither their family or their God will love and accept them unless they change. Their overwhelming desire to avoid rejection is what typically leads these young people to undergo conversion therapy.
However, the results are incredibly detrimental to teen and young adult well-being. An American Psychological Association Task Force convened on this topic found that conversion therapy, as well as being ineffective, can have a wide range of damaging effects.
The Mental Health Effects of Conversion Therapy
In addition to the elevated suicide rates discussed above, research shows that involvement in “ex-gay” interventions results in the following mental health and adjustment issues for LGBTQ youth, as compared to their LGBTQ counterparts who did not experience conversion therapy:
- Higher levels of depression—depression more than doubled (to 33 percent) for LGBTQ young people whose family tried to change their sexual orientation, and more than tripled for those who experienced both parental and external change efforts
- Lower levels of self-esteem, social support, and life satisfaction
- Reduced income and socioeconomic status in young adulthood
- Fewer years of education
- More feelings of self-hatred, shame, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness
- Loss of faith
- Social withdrawal
- Feeling dehumanized and untrue to oneself
- Increased substance abuse
- High-risk sexual behaviors.
In Pray Away, one former member of the “ex-gay” movement speaks about her self-harming behaviors during her teen years. She describes her mental state after repeatedly burning herself as “a whirlwind of fear, agony, and self-loathing.”
“Although parents and religious leaders who try to change a child’s LGBT identity may be motivated by attempts to ‘protect’ their children, these rejecting behaviors instead undermine an LGBT child’s sense of self-worth, contribute to self-destructive behaviors that significantly increase risk, and inhibit self-care.”
—Dr. Caitlin Ryan, Director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University
Embracing Young People Exactly as They Are
At Newport Academy and our young adult treatment program, Newport Institute, we support young people to embrace their true selves, build self-worth, and form trusting and safe connections with peers and mentors who accept them unconditionally. Our family-centered approach also seeks to heal the ruptures in the parent-child relationship, whether they were catalyzed by family rejection of a young person’s gender identity or sexual orientation, or by other circumstances.
Moreover, our clinicians are highly versed in a variety of areas that impact LGBTQ mental health in particular. This cultural competence in clinical practice includes comprehension of the impact of stigma on this population, as well as understanding how religious dogma may have affected the way LGBTQ youth view themselves.
In addition, Newport Academy partners with nonprofit organizations such as The Trevor Project to raise awareness and funds to help end suicide among LGBTQ youth. We are proud to do our part in reversing these trends and bringing hope and healing to teens, young adults, and families.
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J Children Media. 2014 Oct; 8(4):423–439.
DKC Analytics: WellBeings Survey