The Devastating Role of Religion in Mental Health
What Have You Experienced?
If you have sought the advice of a pastoral counselor or church leader about your mental illness, how did they respond?
Religious Ideas Which Encourage Mental Illness
Throughout my life as a mental health professional, the devastating role that religion plays in the development of unhealthy thoughts and beliefs has become evident. My efforts to help people overcome their unhealthy mental and emotional habits are often hampered by the person’s religious convictions. Not only can people not heal from emotional stress and trauma when embracing religious ideas that keep them in bondage, but these religious ideas themselves are often the cause of the stress and trauma.
I am not trying to say that no one should embrace a religious faith. That is for each person to decide. But you can choose to embrace a faith that is not toxic and does not lead you to accept an unhealthy, emotionally debilitating state as normal. Here are some of the “ideas” which have no basis in fact but that are taught to people as “truth” and which hold people in bondage:
- Humans are born with a sinful nature. We are basically evil and need to be saved – There is no scientific basis for this claim. A person is not born good or bad. A person learns how to behave through observations of how others behave, and by adapting his responses to try to avoid unpleasant stimuli. There is nothing inherently evil in the individual.
- We are not acceptable the way we are – this is the most devastating belief system to buy into, and is the basis of most mental and emotional problems. Because we exist, we have value. Our value is not based upon our behavior or beliefs. Each and every person has equal merit and an equal right to happiness.
- People will only do what is right if there is a threat of punishment for doing wrong – First of all, what is “right” is a matter of opinion so it is ludicrous for one person to hold another person to their own standard. Even if you belong to a religious group, what is considered right or wrong depends upon the values of the group and does vary from group to group. Not all churches or religions believe the same thing, hence you cannot trust the group to tell you what is right. It must come from within you. Secondly, all punishment does is destroy the one being punished, it does not improve or build up. It does not make a person more emotionally healthy to endure punishment. On the contrary, it causes a decline in all observable measures of mental health.
- I am not capable of doing good. Only God can help me “be good.” - This takes the responsibility for changing your life out of your hands and puts it into God’s, which is a mistake. You and only you can change your life. All the tools you need to do this are available to you. Perhaps you don’t understand how to use them yet, but they are available. Don’t give your power and responsibility over to someone else. I know you may be in a hard place right now and you think you have tried everything you know, and you want to turn to someone else who can make all your problems go away, but that is not reality. I don’t want you to give up – there are tools out there to help you – but I also don’t want you to put your faith in something that does not exist in order to solve your problems. You ARE capable of being and doing good. You CAN get better using the tools that are available.
- No one is good, only God – well, how do you define “good”? In reference to God, most people say that he is perfect, sinless and doesn’t make mistakes. Well, that doesn’t hold water. Throughout the Bible God lied, instructed others to lie, and performed many deceptions. I wouldn’t call that good or perfect. For instance, Exodus 5:1 says that God told Moses to speak to Pharaoh and tell him that the Israelites wanted to be allowed to go into the wilderness to celebrate a festival to the Lord. In reality, they were to escape from Egypt and run away. God instructed them to lie. This sort of thing occurs over and over in the Bible. So don’t make God’s behavior in the Bible our standard for what is right.
- If things don’t turn out right in my life, there is something wrong with me, not something wrong with God – we are human, we make mistakes, but that does not mean there is something wrong with us. Mistakes are an important part of the learning process and should not be discouraged. Making a mistake is nothing you need to apologize for and doesn’t make you unacceptable. People need to consider that maybe their belief system about God is wrong. But we always want to blame ourselves. There is no need for blame of oneself or anyone else. Blame, guilt and shame are not healthy.
Proof is Important
In John 20, Thomas told Jesus he would not believe without proof, and Jesus gave him proof that satisfied him. There is nothing wrong with expecting that the things you believe be provable and have evidence to back them up. According to Jesus, proof is important. Don’t accept something you are asked to believe without proof of its veracity. If God says he will give you assistance in time of trouble, and you have prayed and pleaded and no help came, that is proof. Proof that not everything you have been told about God is true. It is reasonable to expect that everything in the Bible, if it is true, WORKS in everyday life. If you have done what the Bible says and it did not work in everyday life, then it is false. You don’t have to believe it.
Studies have shown that clergy, and not trained psychological counselors, are most often consulted when a person has an emotional or mental illness. And yet, studies also show that in 32% of cases where a pastoral counselor was consulted, the person asking for help was told they did not really have a mental illness, and were told that the problem was just spiritual in nature. The study also found that women were more likely than men to have their mental health claims dismissed, and that this happened more frequently in fundamentalist churches than more liberal ones. All the participants in this study had already been previously evaluated by a licensed mental health professional and given diagnoses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia before approaching the church for assistance. This study was done at Baylor University and was published in the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture (1).
The problem is not just the way the mentally ill are treated but the way religious beliefs interfere with normal cognitive processes. In 1980, Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive therapy, wrote in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that there was an irrefutable causal relationship between religion and emotional and mental illness. According to Canadian psychiatrist Wendall Watters, “Christian doctrine and liturgy have been shown to discourage the development of adult coping behaviors and the human to human relationship skills that enable people to cope in an adaptive way with the anxiety caused by stress” (2).
In 2008 Marcia Webb et al. From Seattle Pacific University conducted a study entitled “Representation of Mental Illness in Christian Self-Help Bestsellers.” The study looked at the themes provided in Christian self-help books and how they characterize those with mental illness. The team found that most of these themes focused on depression. “Demonic possession was the most frequently cited reason for depression. Other reasons included negative cognitions, failure as a Christian, and negative emotions. Christian responses to depression were trusting God, religious activity, and individual willpower” (3). An online study of both Protestants and Catholics by Baylor University in 2007 showed that approximately one third of the participants reported that their churches believed their mental illness to be the result of personal sin and another one third had been told that they did not actually have a mental illness even though a mental health professional had diagnosed them (4).
Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1995 book “An Unquiet Mind” chronicled her struggle with bipolar disorder and how her church treated her. She states that after her book came out
"I received thousands of letters from people…many were exceedingly hostile. A striking number said that I deserved my illness because I was insufficiently Christian and that the Devil had gotten hold of me. More prayer, not medication, was the only answer” (5).
In many of the self-help books, Jesus is portrayed as “the Savior who frees people from bondage.” If this is the case, why has he turned his back on so many of his people who have repeatedly prayed and trusted him to free them?
Loss of control and learned helplessness coupled with blame and guilt often invoke depression. What greater guilt could be placed upon someone than to tell them that their personal sin is what is causing their depression, or that their failure to be “Christian enough” is the cause? If their personal sin is the cause, and Jesus took their sin away, it stands to reason that they would no longer be plagued by anything caused by that sin. Yet many devout Christians who have devoted their lives to Christ continue to experience depression. It is a huge injustice for those people to be made to believe that the depression is their fault.
I want those of you who may have experienced this treatment to know that I understand that you have probably tried everything you can think of to get rid of your depression and you have gotten no results or only temporary results. I do not blame you for this. You have done the best you could. Please don’t embrace the blame and guilt that others try to place upon you. I urge you to create a boundary for your own mental sanity that will not allow those who believe such things to be around you. You need to surround yourself with positive messages, not messages of blame, guilt and sin. There is a logical explanation for what has happened to you and it can be fixed. Don’t allow others to blame you for that. If you were in the same room with someone that had a cold and you caught a cold too, would you blame yourself? No….it’s a virus that has invaded your body. It’s not sin! In the same way, you have a disruption in your body’s energy system that causes negative emotions. Also not sin! It was at one time believed that epileptics were demon possessed because they writhed about and foamed at the mouth. We now know that epilepsy is a medical condition and is treatable. We don’t have to believe in superstitions. Depression is not a spiritual issue. It's a mental health issue.
1. Ellis A. Psychotherapy and atheistic values: a response to A. E. Bergin’s “Psychotherapy and religious values.” J Consult Clin Psychol. 1980;48:635-639.
2. Watters WW. Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness and Christian God-Talk. Buffalo: Prometheus Books; 1992.
3. Webb M., Stetz K., and Hedden K. (2008). Representation of mental illness in Christian self-help bestsellers. Journal of Mental Health, Religion and Culture. Vol. 11 no. 7, 697-717.
4. Stanford, M. (2007). Demon or disorder: A survey of attitudes toward mental illness in the Christian Church. Mental Health, Religion and Culture. 10(5): 445-449.
5. Jamison, K.R. (2006). The many stigmas of mental illness. The Lancet, 367, 533-34.
Embrace a Non-Toxic Faith
Schizotypalism is at the Heart of Religion
White et al. (1995) found that those who scored higher on a test intended to measure positive feelings about Christianity also scored high in schizotypal personality traits. One of those traits is “magical thinking” that influences behavior, and another is unusual perceptual experiences, bodily illusions, and auditory or visual hallucinations(1). I’m not saying everyone in the church has schizotypal personality traits, but certainly the leaders who perpetuate the doctrines of the church and stand before you claiming supernatural power are candidates for this diagnosis, and they are the ones propagating the idea that all you have to do is pray enough or in the right way and you will be magically healed of your depression.
According to Dr. M.D. Magee in “The Social Psychology of Christianity”,
"In human history, schizotypals are metamagical thinkers, the shamans, the medicine men, the witch doctors, whom anthropologist, Paul Radin described as “half mad”, and “healed madmen”. Shamans tend to be solitary, talk with the dead, speak in tongues, ride on the moon, and turn into a hyena by night…schizotypal shamanism is, a milder, more controlled version of schizophrenia. Shamans are honoured, if feared members of society, that society wants, and will tolerate the occasional schizophrenic to have. Schizotypalism is at the heart of religion. Who hears a voice in a burning bush? Who sees visions of dead men, and hears them addressing them? Who thinks they speak for God?" (2)
I’m not saying every religious person is schizotypal. Not everyone in churches claims to be able to speak in tongues, see visions, hear God’s voice, or do miracles (although many churches claim you should be able to). But at some point in time, some schizotypal person with magical thinking claimed to have a message from God, and convinced others he had. And the rest of humanity followed him like he was a pied piper because we all want to believe in something. Something that gives us power, strength, and help. If you have believed in this in the past, I’m not blaming you, because half the world has followed the same path, all I am saying now is WAKE UP! Religions that claim to speak for a god are fraudulent.
2. Magee, M.D. (2008). The Social Psychology of Christianity. Available online: http://www.askwhy.co.uk/truth/324Psychology.php
Depression, the Secret We Share
Seek Appropriate Treatment that Feels Right to You
Examples of Non-Toxic Religions or Philosophies
- Unitarian Universalism
- Divest yourself of beliefs which encourage mental illness.
- Get appropriate treatment for your mental or emotional condition.
- Set appropriate boundaries which won't allow others to place blame, shame or guilt upon you for your condition or choice of treatment.
- Embrace a non-toxic faith or life philosophy.
- Surround yourself with others supportive of your path.