Therapist who could 'cure' gay men loses malpractice appeal

By Patrick Strudwick

History was made this week. For the first time, a therapist was found guilty of malpractice after trying to "treat" a client for homosexuality to turn them straight.

For decades, mental health professionals used torturous techniques, such as chemical castration, to try and "cure" homosexuality. As recently as the 1980s, electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) was inflicted on gay patients.

More recently, a talking therapy called conversion (or reparative) therapy has been used. Now, finally, one psychotherapist – Lesley Pilkington – has been brought to account.

I made the complaint against her. In 2009, I went undercover to investigate the dark arts of conversion therapy, the premise of which is that homosexuality is the result of childhood "wounding" that must be "healed". And so, Pilkington, a Christian, tried to find what wounded me in a bid to convert me to heterosexuality.

This involved the sinister (suggesting I'd been sexually abused as a child and praying to God to bring repressed memories to the surface), the dangerous (opining that God heals HIV and homosexuality is a mental illness) and the ludicrous (advising me to take up rugby).

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy found her guilty of "professional malpractice" last year, but she appealed. On Tuesday she lost her appeal. The appeal panel described Pilkington's practices as "unprofessional", "dogmatic" and "negligent". They have suspended her.

Only if Pilkington can satisfactorily demonstrate that she has learned from her mistakes will she be reinstated. It might be tempting to laugh at some of the techniques used in conversion therapy – find me a gay man who feels less gay after being in a rugby scrum and I'll happily renounce my homosexuality.

But, tragically, countless people in Britain and around the world know what damage this kind of "treatment" does.

A 2002 study by the clinical psychologists Shidlo and Schroeder found that 55 per cent of those who go through it are left with worsened mental health – depression, self-harm, lower self-esteem and suicide ideation. I've met some of these people and seen the scars. I fought this case for them.

But even the investigation itself had wide reverberations. Victims of conversion therapy – along with therapists who used to practice it before realising their mistake – contacted me from around the world describing the years of misery they suffered. It spawned protests outside conversion therapy conference.

The British Medical Association passed a motion condemning attempts to "cure" sexual orientation and urging the NHS to investigate where it might have inadvertently paid for such "treatment". (Pilkington, who was attached to an NHS GP surgery, claimed she had had clients referred to her for conversion therapy by the doctor. The surgery denied this).

I was delighted with the BMA's motion and I'm delighted by the BACP's decision. But much as this verdict is a victory for gay people, and for the credibility of psychotherapy, it exposes a gaping flaw in Britain's response to mental illness. There is no statutory regulation of counsellors or psychotherapists. Anyone in Britain today can call themselves a therapist, without any training or experience.

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