What conversion therapy cost me

People gathered at the Capitol Hill in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 17, 2021 to celebrate The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. Protesters asked legislators to pass the law that would ban sexual Conversion Therapy.

Garrard Conley is an assistant professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University. He is the author of the memoir "Boy Erased," adapted into a film of the same name. He is also the producer of Unerased: The History of Conversion Therapy in America. The views expressed here are the author's. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)When I attended conversion therapy in 2004, the cost was $1,500 for a two-week session.

Garrard Conley
My parents saved up for the so-called counseling, having heard through a network of Baptist preachers that, in many cases, clients required months, sometimes years, of "treatment." By the time I realized conversion therapy didn't work, it had not only taken our money but also caused our family deep emotional and psychological harm.
    Before the two weeks were up, the director of the program spoke with my mother about extending my stay for another month, then another three months, and after that, possibly even years. Only after my mother witnessed me on the brink of suicide did she withdraw me from treatment. Otherwise, we might have spent thousands more and lost years of our lives to conversion therapy.
      This week, JAMA Pediatrics published an economic study on the cost of conversion therapy among LGBTQ youth. Over a lifetime, the estimated cost amounts to nearly $100,000 per person, with the national burden totaling roughly $650 million.
        These staggering numbers do not even include adult or international populations. Taking into account associated harms resulting from such "therapy," researchers went on to estimate a total national economic burden of $9.23 billion.
        Garrard Conley and his parents.
        This study confirms what many survivors of conversion therapy already know to be true: that conversion therapy is immensely detrimental and costly in countless ways. For years, I have met and interviewed dozens of survivors who have spent their life savings on conversion therapy practices, which researchers found dramatically increase the risk of depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Not one survivor I spoke with failed to mention the pressure they experienced from so-called counselors who suggested, as mine did, that the road to a "cure" would be long and costly.
          When someone is repeatedly told their identity is shameful and wrong, is it any wonder that they would seek more treatment in the hopes of leaving shame behind? Human rights organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign, have for years discredited the practice of conversion therapy.
          This latest study provides more evidence that the practice is indeed ineffective and harmful. By contrast, the research shows affirmative therapy, which embraces and upholds a positive view of all identities, would save $1.81 billion nationally over no intervention and nearly $6.19 billion over conversion therapy, in addition to reducing risk of self-harm and other negative outcomes. This suggests that when LGBTQ youth undergo legitimate affirmative therapy, not only are the costs lower, but the outcomes are more positive.
          In many ways, I was lucky. With the support of affirming friends, I was able to convince myself and my family that I did not need to erase my identity. When one of my conversion therapy counselors later reached out to me, pleading with me to leave my "sinful lifestyle" behind and re-enroll, I told him the truth: that I was much happier accepting who I was.
          Though I did not spend more money on conversion therapy, I have suffered from enduring years of depressive episodes and suicidal ideation, the true cost of which I couldn't even begin to calculate. Because of the harmful religious bigotry I experienced in my sessions, I could no longer pray to God without feeling shame. I took Viagra at the age of 19 because every time I tried to be intimate with my first boyfriend, I remembered counselors telling me that I craved male touch because I hadn't experienced it from my father, which created a mental block that felt insurmountable without medical intervention.
          What is the true cost of losing one's faith? One's ability to experience love?
          It is a tragedy that, despite evidence of harm, lawmakers in some states -- like Wisconsin, Oklahoma and South Carolina -- defend conversion therapy on the grounds of religious liberty and personal freedom, while others, like Florida, continue to create laws aimed at targeting LGBTQ youth. As of today, almost half of the United States still permits harmful efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity. As the editorial accompanying the study laments, "the human toll is simply not enough to eradicate (this) dangerous practice."
          Do abstract notions of personal and religious freedom always take precedence over real suffering? Is saving money more important than saving lives? Perhaps, for many of these politicians, the answer to both questions is yes.
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          While quantifying the financial impact of conversion therapy will help many understand its tangible costs, you cannot put a price on human life. My parents say they would give anything to take back what happened to our family, to reverse the harmful effects of conversion therapy. If only they could.
          If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project's trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678.
            If you are experiencing a suicidal crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text line by texting HOME to 741741 to get help.