Five Questions With: Dr. David C. Savitzky

Dr. David C. Savitzky is the chief pediatric psychiatrist for Gateway Healthcare, a Lifespan-affiliated behavioral health care nonprofit, who advocated as an independent citizen for legislation recently passed by the R.I. General Assembly banning the state’s licensed health care providers from practicing so-called “conversion therapy” for children and teenagers who identify as LGBTQ.

Savitzky spoke with Providence Business News about conversion therapy, it’s impact on Rhode Island’s youth, and the intersection of diversity and health care.

PBN: What exactly is conversion therapy?

SAVITZKY: Conversion therapy is a counseling treatment that is designed to “convert” a person with one psychosexual orientation to another orientation, from LGBTQ to heterosexual. It would attempt to use counseling techniques to cause someone to reject their own feelings, convincing them to believe that LGBTQ feelings are unacceptable and should be replaced with heterosexual feelings. It has included violent, torturous and life-threatening techniques and always included shaming and inducing self-hatred to motivate the rejection of LGBTQ feelings.

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PBN: What effects can conversion therapy have on a child or young adult who identifies as LGBTQ?

SAVITZKY: When youth are subjected to brainwashing techniques to change their feelings, they are left with a deep sense of doubt about the world and their place in it. Youth who feel that an important aspect of themselves is being rejected will feel that their entire self is being rejected. They frequently have an acceleration of underlying feelings of isolation, shame and then self-loathing that creates urges to be harmful to themselves or even suicidality.

When the rejection is couched in religious terms, youth will feel rejected by their faith and feel that there is no place of support in the house of worship they could have accepted. They can become violent or engage in severe substance abuse, feeling that there is no point in trying to live a healthy life. They feel that their family has rejected them so they pull away, becoming alienated from the people who would have supported them.

PBN: What difference is there between the practice of conversion therapy banned in this legislation and other types of “affirmative” therapy or counseling for LGBTQ youth?

SAVITZKY: Affirmative therapy is an approach to counseling a person with LGBTQ feelings that makes acceptance and appreciation of the person’s LGBTQ feelings the center of treatment. Therapy that attempts to make LGBTQ youth reject those feelings so they can appear to be heterosexual is conversion therapy and is now prohibited by licensed professionals. The difference is in the intent of the therapy. One attempts to uncover and resolve conflicts about sexuality in whatever way the youth’s feelings assert themselves. The other attempts to suppress “unacceptable” feelings and to coerce the person into replacing them with heterosexual feelings toward others.

PBN: As a child psychiatrist in Rhode Island, what motivated you to come forward in support of this legislation?

SAVITZKY: Conversion therapy is so destructive and damaging to the youth who are subjected to it that I could not sit back and watch practitioners continue to harm new victims. Despite the softening of the practice to mainly psychological torture, when I discovered that there were still practitioners in my own state, I had to participate in the effort to ban it. This is one of the holdovers from a recent time when society attempted to force conformity on everyone for everything. We no longer beat children who eat with their left hand, we no longer punish people for their medical conditions; we should not be making children suicidal over the feelings that they did not request and cannot control.

As we move toward a society with fewer limitations on business that are based on what consumers deserve and more license to make whatever allegations will sell an opinion or a product, we must redouble our efforts to preserve the law’s protection of the vulnerable and to ensure that therapies provide what they claim and that they maintain the patient’s good as their motivation for treatment.

PBN: Are there other areas of health care that still need improvement when it comes to patients who identify as LGBTQ?

SAVITZKY: Yes, medical and psychological care of youth with LGBTQ feelings must continue to destigmatize those feelings in all aspects of their care. Youth continue to endure vicious bullying, social ostracization and predatory behaviors by adults, which are built on the stigma against LGBTQ people in our society.

If youth knew that their feelings were going to be an accepted part of the response they got from the health care community, they would be less likely to hide their feelings from their providers and their families. They would be less troubled as they negotiated the challenges of adolescence, would have less trouble expressing their feelings in healthy ways and would have healthier relationships as they matured.

Kaylen Auer is a PBN contributing writer.