‘Therapy First’ Retreat Helps Like-Minded Therapists Share Ideas on Gender Dysphoria Issue

‘Therapy First’ Retreat Helps Like-Minded Therapists Share Ideas on Gender Dysphoria Issue

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Pamela Garfield-Jaeger
Pamela Garfield-Jaeger

7/5/2024

Updated: 7/17/2024

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Commentary
In mid-June, an organization called “Therapy First” held its very first in-person summer retreat. Therapy First states on its website that the organization “is a non-profit professional association of over 300 mental health providers worldwide who view psychotherapy as the appropriate first-line treatment for gender dysphoria.”
About five years ago, this statement wouldn’t have been very controversial among mainstream mental health professionals. Now, however, many of these therapists work in hiding. In fact, a large proportion of those 300 don’t disclose their names publicly.
Gender has become such a controversial topic that most therapists who agree with Therapy First’s statement stay out of this area of work completely. Those who dare to work with patients with gender issues face multiple complaints on their professional licensure. Some are accused of doing “conversion therapy.”
As someone who is no longer managing a full-time practice because of health issues, I don’t personally feel the same threat. However, at the retreat, during our first meal together, three out of eight were actively fighting a complaint on their licenses. I later learned that another participant was fighting a complaint simply because she “misgendered” a patient in her writing.
From what I understand, everyone who has faced a complaint ended up being vindicated. However, the stress and legal fees are the punishment. The genuine threat of cancellation is enough to keep people in hiding.
Despite these obstacles, about 50 like-minded therapists got together at an undisclosed yoga retreat center in the northeastern United States. There were even attendees who came all the way from Europe. The three-day event included food and boarding, as well as multiple thought-provoking talks. Yet it was very affordable because Therapy First subsidized the event. They knew just how important it was to get us together and put their money behind it. This was money well spent.
The first day of the program opened with a panel of major whistleblowers who have broken the dam and forced certain institutions to reflect on their non-evidence-based practices. For me, it was inspiring to see them all up on stage together.
Jamie Reed, a whistleblower from a pediatric gender clinic, was asked about courage.
“You cannot do courageous things if you don’t have people behind you to trust,” she said.
It was a perfect beginning to the retreat. We were there to find people to trust. She emphasized how important it is to be courageous and still be able to get home and get dinner to her kids. She discussed the reality that people need to “be self-aware and assess their risk.” In other words, the risk is still very high and the fear of losing safety and livelihood is real.
Also on stage was Tamara Pietzke, a therapist who worked for a major hospital. She talked about having to approve hormones for a 12-year-old with severe trauma.
“I think it is so important to have someone to talk to so you don’t think you are crazy. Finding that support is so important,” Ms. Pietzke said.
This is exactly what this retreat was for, to find that support so more people can come forward safely.
An interesting theme from the panel was that when these whistleblowers pointed out their concerns to their superiors, they didn’t get into an argument about whether pediatric gender transition was correct. Rather, the supervisors said, “What do you want me to do about it?” The powerlessness they felt was palpable.
Sara Stockton is well known from Matt Walsh’s documentary “What is a Woman?” She worked closely with many of the pioneers of gender transition medical procedures early in her career. Since she learned of former clients having regret and harm, she has been holding severe guilt.
She has the integrity to concede that she was wrong, but not without a price. She called it “moral injury” in a later talk. She described moral injury as “when someone engages in acts that go against their beliefs.”
I reflected on the many times I was in that situation as a social worker and clinical supervisor, when I ignored my intuition because I was pressured to do certain things. No one is immune to this.
Sara spoke about self-forgiveness, and is still wrestling with her own guilt. She isn’t alone.
“The toll of not speaking up was more difficult,” she said.
That’s exactly how I feel, too. I was once fooled into believing that helping youth understand their identities without family interference was helpful. Now, I know I was used to push an agenda that has been carefully mapped out for years.
While we heal from our moral injuries, it’s often difficult to remember the importance of good mental health care. The ideological capture of our profession, plus the recent release of the book “Bad Therapy” by Abigail Shrier, and the well-deserved criticism of the modern trends in the mental health profession by influencers such as Matt Walsh, all show the need for improvement in mental health care.
However, seasoned therapist Joe Burgo reminded me of how much we are needed with his talk, “Good Therapy: Answering Abigail Shrier.” He spoke of how meaningful his work is. He discussed how he’s able to connect with his patients who would otherwise be isolated, and build an environment for them so they can heal from deep wounds.
I was inspired. It’s easy to get locked into a negative spiral and see all of the harms of therapy, and forget how much mental health professionals have helped people. I needed this reminder.
Later, we broke into small groups where people could discuss real-life cases and get peer feedback. This is something our profession has always valued tremendously. It’s necessary to trust your peers and be open, and these consultations are vital to maintain quality work. I was a clinical supervisor and spent years leading similar consultation groups. However, with the institutional capture and fears of cancel culture, most therapists stay silent or work in isolation. Being back in an environment where I learned from other insightful professionals and could contribute to the clinical discussion was priceless.
However, the real magic of the conference happened during the down times. I’m one of the few who can speak their minds and be honest about their views around others. For many, however, this was the first time they felt comfortable doing so.
On the last day, a participant reminded us that we were a part of history. In 20 years, we will reflect on this week in June 2024 and remember that this was the first event of its kind, and its effects will be far-reaching.
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Pamela Garfield-Jaeger is a licensed clinical social worker with a degree from New York University. She has been licensed in California since 2005 and has worked in a variety of settings, including community-based organizations, schools, residential programs, and medical facilities. She was forced to leave her job because of California’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. This emboldened her to speak out on the problems she observed in the mental health field. Her website is TheTruthfulTherapist.org

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