Some New Jersey officials are trying to prohibit mental health professionals from offering conversion therapy, which is meant to convert teenagers from gay to straight. Assemblyman Timothy Eustace (D-38) is behind a bill for the ban, which is modeled after similar legislation in California. He told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that he just recently realized the so-called therapy was still being used since major mental health organizations disavowed it almost 40 years ago.
Eustace explained that conversion therapy is “a method usually nicknamed ‘pray the gay away.'” He said, “It’s to convert teenagers from gay to straight or even questioning teenagers from gay to straight.”
Parents who want this method used can find it in New Jersey. Eustace said there are several organizations in the state that offer it, though most are not clinical psychologists or psychiatrists. “The bill we’re proposing would prevent professionals — mental health professionals — from doing this sort of therapy,” Eustace said. “If that was your religious bent you’d still be able to do it but professionals would not be able to provide this method.”
Eustace estimates that a significant number of teens are affected by conversion therapy. “The problem is more than half of the suicides that happen to teenagers are gay or gay identified youth,” he said, adding that most evidence shows conversion therapy leads to more harm than good.
As an openly gay man and a parent, Eustace said people told him about the opportunities for conversion therapy. He was surprised the practice still existed. “As I said, 40 years ago professional organizations said homosexuality is not an illness so what would these people be treating?” he asked. “If the professional organizations feel that it is outside the scope of practice, we should definitely enforce that.”
Eustace said many organizations — including the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association of Social Workers and the American Pediatric Association — have said conversion therapy is harmful.
New Jersey has “a pretty open law about who can call themselves a therapist or a counselor,” according to Eustace. But he said strengthening the rules for licenses will prohibit professional therapists from using the conversion method.
“If you’re a professional — a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a social worker — you’re bound by certain standards and licensing laws,” Eustace said. “So we’re trying to tighten it up so that people who consider themselves therapists have to work within the framework of what is considered professional clinical assistance.”
In addition to Eustace’s legislation in the Assembly, there is a companion bill in the Senate, which Sen. Raymond Lesniak introduced. Eustace believes the bill has a good chance of passing in both houses. “It’s about stopping child abuse so I can’t imagine anybody on either side of the aisle would want their children or neighbor’s children subjected to this type of abuse,” he said.
While the legislation would criminalize the use of conversion therapy, Eustace said the licensing boards would deal with any professionals who operate outside the realm of normal practices.
Eustace said the problem isn’t geographic and the conversion method is used throughout New Jersey.
“I think that there are well meaning parents who think they can change this,” Eustace said. “The problem is on the other end you may be causing anxiety and depression and at the worst suicide.”