The new head of the World Psychiatric Association, Professor Dinesh Bhugra, has come out as gay in an interview and says his profession should apologise for the way it has treated gay people and women.

“There are still countries where it’s seen as an illness,” he told the Guardian. “We need to make a stand.”

The 61-year-old is also professor of psychiatry and diversity at King’s College London, and chair of the Mental Health Foundation.

He is already ‘out’ in his personal life but hadn’t spoken about his sexuality publicly until his Guardian interview with journalist Patrick Strudwick.

Professor Bhugra will next year become the first gay president of the World Psychiatric Association, which represents and supports 200,000 psychiatrists worldwide.

He acknowledged that his profession had a chequered past. “There is no doubt psychiatry hasn’t covered itself in glory. I think we ought to be apologising for all of the areas, not just one bit – like the treatment of women,” he said. “I remember seeing a patient admitted to a psychiatric hospital when she was 16 because she got pregnant outside marriage. She died there in her 80s.”

Professor Bhugra grew up in Yamuna Nagar, in Haryana state, northern India. “Being gay is an important part of me, but a private part,” he said.

After coming to the UK to train as a psychiatrist he realised he was gay, which he said “wasn’t difficult – it gave meaning to how I felt”.

When Professor Bhugra met Mike, his partner of over 30 years, he helped him to come out to friends and family.

“My father freaked out completely, my mother was really pragmatic and said, ‘Who’s going to look after you in your old age?'”

The UK Government last week resisted calls by MPs to introduce statutory regulation of psychotherapists in order to prevent them from being able to carry out gay-to-straight conversion therapy.

A 2009 survey of 1,328 accredited mental health professionals showed 17% of practitioners readily admitted to having assisted at least one client to reduce their same-sex attraction. Some 35% of patients therapists described were referred to them for treatment by general practitioners, and 40% were reported as actually being treated inside an NHS practice.

Liberal Democrat Health Minister Norman Lamb said the therapy was “utterly abhorrent” but that the Department of Health was not aware of cases of it being prescribed on the NHS.

In response, Labour MP Sandra Osborne said failing to consider a blanket ban would put LGBT people at risk.