One in 25 British psychiatrists and psychologists say they would be willing to help homosexual and bisexual patients try to convert to heterosexuality, even though there is no compelling scientific evidence a person can willfully become straight, and trying to force them to do so can cause serious psychological damage, researchers report this week in BMC Psychiatry.

"The implications are that [psychiatrists and psychologists] ought to bring themselves up to date," says study co-author Michael King, a psychiatrist at the University College London. "It would be better to help [homosexuals and bisexuals] deal with the prejudices and internal stigmas associated with their sexual orientation."

King and his colleagues surveyed psychiatrists and psychologists throughout the U.K. on how they respond to patients seeking to change their sexual orientation. Among the 1,328 psychotherapists included in the study, 222 (17 percent) said they had tried to help patients reduce or suppress gay feelings at least once in their professional careers, and 55 (4 percent) said they would try to help a homosexual or bisexual patient convert to heterosexuality in the future.

King says he is not aware of a similar survey conducted in the U.S. or elsewhere but suspects that "treating" people for homo- or bi-sexuality may be even more common in other parts of the world.

Jack Drescher, a New York City psychiatrist and spokesperson for the American Psychiatric Association (APA), says "trying to change homosexuality in the U.S. is a marginal activity" and that no psychiatric residency program or psychology accreditation program would ever endorse such a practice. "There is very little scientific evidence that people can change their sexual orientation," he says, adding that attempts to do so have led people to become anxious, depressed, and even suicidal.

Nathaniel Frank, the author of Unfriendly Fire, a new book on gays in the U.S. military, says there are parallels between the way homosexuals have been treated by the military and the mental health community (homosexuality was an official diagnosis in the "psychiatric bible," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, up until 1973, one year after psychiatrist John Fryer appeared before the APA convention disguised in a mask and wig and proclaimed he was gay). Just as there is no scientific evidence that people can be "treated" for their sexual orientation, there is also no evidence that allowing gays in the military erodes morale or cohesion among comrades, Frank says.

Troubled by their findings (and the fact that gays and bisexuals in developing countries such as India and South Africa may face greater discrimination by mental health communities), King and his colleagues this week will launch a Web site called to raise awareness about the misconceptions.

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