News / Toronto

Outcry prompts CAMH to review its controversial treatment of trans youth

Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has stopped accepting new patients to its Gender Identity Services clinic for youth because of outcry from the public.

CAMH is reviewing the mental health services it offers to youth age three to 18 who are struggling with gender identity or require services related to being transgender.

The centre started the review process a few months ago because of complaints, particularly from the trans community, that its services “weren’t respectful” of patients’ gender identity, medical director Dr. Kwame McKenzie told Metro. New patients won’t be accepted until the review is finished.

Criticism of CAMH and the doctor in charge of the youth gender identity service — Dr. Kenneth Zucker — has been building online. At the heart of the issue is what’s called “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy:" designed to stop people from being gay or transgender.

One example of the outcry is an online petition that alleges Zucker has been doing reparative therapy with trans youth at CAMH for years, causing more harm than good to a population that already has an increased risk of suicide.

“You can make them afraid and/or hate themselves, but you cannot change who they are,” it reads.

NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo tabled a private member’s bill last week that would ban reparative therapy for youth, citing the damaging effects it has on patients.

CAMH’s own guidelines say it should not offer this kind of therapy, McKenzie said. His own opinion is that it should be illegal in Ontario.

“That is not supposed to be the aim of the clinic,” he said

However, there are two different “camps” of professional thought on the issue when it comes to young kids, McKenzie said.

While almost all professionals agree that reparative therapy is ineffective and harmful for older teens and adults, some believe it works to change kids’ gender identity – and helps them — if they are younger than 11.

“With a four-year-old boy who wants to play with dolls and wear dresses and might think they are in the wrong body, there are a camp of professionals who do believe in conversion or reparative therapy,” McKenzie said.

The divide has complicated CAMH’s search for an “independent” expert to lead the review, he said.

The controversial doctor

Citing legal and human resources concerns, McKenzie would not comment on which “camp” the head of the program, Zucker, falls in. CAMH declined Metro’s request to interview Zucker himself, citing the ongoing review.

However, Zucker has written about his own views, and they’ve been reported in mainstream news in Canada and the U.S.

In a 2008 paper, he wrote about the best practices he has developed at CAMH’s clinic, and how he believes it is both ethical and possible to direct a young child’s gender identity to match their biological sex.

While he’s found it does not work in older teens and adults, it does work for young children -- the younger the better, he wrote. One part of that therapy he described is limiting patients' cross-gender behaviour, such as boys cross-dressing and playing with Barbies.

In an interview with the National Post published this year, Zucker indicated his therapy would prevent children from growing up to be transgender.

“You are lowering the odds that as such a kid gets older, he or she will move into adolescence feeling so uncomfortable about their gender identity that they think that it would be better to live as the other gender and require treatment with hormones and sex-reassignment surgery,” he said.

Upon learning that Zucker had said that, McKenzie told Metro: “That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.”

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