Donna Sheperis, PhD, Comments on Conversion Therapy in The Conversation

August 16, 2021
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PAU professor Donna Sheperis, PhD, published an article in The Conversation, a nonprofit media outlet for academics and researchers, that documented the discredited and risky practice of conversion therapy. The article was prompted by lawmakers in Kentucky who prefiled a bill for the 2022 legislature that would ban conversion therapy.
 
Conversion therapy is an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, through means ranging from counseling to celibacy, or prayer and gender conformity. In the early days of the practice, electric shocks and lobotomies were also in use.
 
Professional bodies, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association, have denounced conversion therapy in recent decades and documented how detrimental the practices are to LGBTQ+ clients. For example, a 2020 study from UCLA found that LGBTQ+ people who have been subjected to conversion therapy “were almost twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts and to have attempted suicide."
 
Dr. Sheperis is Associate Chair for Clinical Training at PAU and has long been an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. In her first academic placement in the early 2000’s, no LGBTQ+ faculty felt comfortable enough to advise the LGBTQ+ student group. She stepped into the role and has supported the community ever since. Notably, she now has two children who identify as queer and they were brought to tears with her published allyship in The Conversation!
 
Professionally, Sheperis notes how harmful conversion therapy can be to clients, often leading to depression, dysphoria, loss of confidence, and even suicidal thoughts. “Considering that most if not all of these "therapies" are aligned with religious organizations, the double whammy of the message is that you’re flawed and not worthy of God’s love, which can be devastating to practicing Christians, as it is Christians who perpetrate this conversion therapy abuse most in the U.S.”
 
In her article in The Conversation, Dr. Sheperis documents 20 U.S. states in which conversion therapy is banned, leaving LGBTQ+ people vulnerable in many other states and territories. The United Nations has called for a world-wide ban on conversion therapy.
 
This leaves about half of America’s adult LGBTQ+ population in states that allow conversion therapy.
 
“In these ‘silent’ states,” Sheperis said, “a legal loophole exists: Although professional bodies ban their members from conducting conversion therapy, the abusive practice continues. Often practitioners with no relevant degree, certification or license practice therapy and operate outside of professional associations. Many of them tend to cite religious reasons for engaging in the practice. Some even believe it to be unethical not to offer conversion therapy as a choice.” 
 
As a counselor, Dr. Sheperis believes it is important to take a client-centered approach and meet clients at their point of need, without overlaying personal values from the clinician. “Counseling approaches clients from a wellness, not pathological, perspective. To view sexual orientation as something that can and needs to be changed to fit heteronormative ideals, when that is counter to our research, is unethical.”