A controversial therapy for teenagers and children deemed “harmful” by the U.S. government will soon be illegal in Illinois, but the treatment remains available in Wisconsin, Indiana and forty-four other states. And NBC 5 Investigates has learned taxpayers may be footing part of the bill.
Conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy, is defined as any treatment that aims to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
Curtis Galloway, 21, said after coming out as a teenager in downstate Illinois he went through counseling sessions that turned into conversion therapy.
“I wanted it to be someone I could talk to and my parents wanted him to help me through my feelings, but he kind of took it in a different direction,” Galloway recalled.
The sessions took Galloway and his family to an out-of-state therapist for nearly half a year. He said the experience drove a wedge between himself and his family.
Galloway said he left each therapy session in a “worse state of mind” than when he arrived. He recalled the therapist telling him to look for different things in women that would complement him and that he should feel all-around powerful as a man.
“I knew that I couldn’t change my sexuality,” Galloway said. “It really damaged me as a person. I didn’t really know what I wanted or really who I was any more.”
Galloway said he recovered emotionally with the help of his friends and said his family later supported him.
Galloway, currently a senior at Monmouth College, was one of several adults who testified before state lawmakers this summer as the legislature considered banning conversion therapy for minors. Their efforts worked, as Governor Bruce Rauner approved legislation in August making the therapy illegal for persons under 18. The ban becomes effective January 1, 2016.
Many licensed counselors and therapists have argued for years that conversion therapies are not effective and could be harmful.
Jeff Zacharias, a psychotherapist and clinical director of New Hope Recovery Center in Chicago, said he has treated adults who experienced conversion therapies as children.
“We know that the long-term effects of it are quite extensive,” Zacharias said.
In fact, the government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a report in October that concluded therapies or other efforts to change sexual orientation or gender identity are not effective, are harmful and are not appropriate therapeutic practices. The report includes consensus statements by a panel of researchers and practitioners in child and adolescent mental health with a strong background in gender development and sexual orientation in children.
Zacharias also spoke to Illinois lawmakers about his experiences treating adults.
“I end up seeing the after effects, which are the increases in substance abuse, again, depression, suicide, any number of things,” Zacharias said.
But licensed therapists who treat children and adults to help resolve unwanted attractions disagree with the term “conversion.” They refer to themselves as “reparative” therapists. They also dispute the SAMHSA report and say the treatment is about helping people, not harming them.
“We don’t change gay youth. We work with their goals and what they want. If someone is struggling with their identity, we work with them,” said Chris Doyle, a licensed therapist who serves as executive director of Institute for Healthy Families.
Licensed therapist David Pickup told NBC 5 Investigates reparative therapy is about compassion and healing wounds and change really does happen. He added that the therapy is based on a theory that there is no gay gene.
“The hallmarks of authentic reparative therapy are getting rid of any and all shame for having homosexual feelings,” Pickup said.
Pickup said laws that ban the therapy for minors are denying them part of their faith.
“They know that reparative therapy, the kind I’m talking about, really addresses their wounds, their belief system and to deny such would be a gross violation of their client rights, their rights to free speech,” Pickup said.
While Pickup argues there have been no ethical complaints made against reparative therapists in forty years, he urges families to stay away from therapists who try to demand or coerce children in to attending sessions.
Critics, however, said taxpayers may be funding some of these controversial sessions. They said reparative therapists can bill the government or private insurance companies by using broad diagnosis codes and essentially get the government to pay for a treatment that the same government says is harmful.
“The services you’re providing are not the services you’re telling them you’re providing,” Zacharias said.
Reparative therapists dispute that. They said they do not diagnose homosexuality.
“There’s anxiety, there’s depression. Typically, these are based on trauma; underlying reasons why they are feeling same sex attractions,” Doyle said. “We’re diagnosing clients as to why they feel this way.”
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said it does not keep statistics on how much money it potentially has spent paying claims that may or may not have been linked to conversion therapy.
Illinois joins Oregon, California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia in passing a ban on conversion therapies for minors.
According to LGBT support groups, there are no current legislative efforts to ban conversion therapies in Wisconsin or Indiana. And it is legal everywhere for adults.
Galloway, on the other hand, is about to graduate with a communication degree.
“I’m looking into journalism and media, but I’m also looking into LGBT advocacy and a lot of times those go really nicely together,” Galloway said.