- Mental Health
Therapy With Atheists
Religion on The Sofa
A man (we will call him Jay) walked into a therapy session with severe depression and anxiety problems. He was 21 years old, middle-class, and financially stable.
He sat on the couch and started talking about his abusive childhood, bullying adolescence, and difficulty maintaining affluence with his studies and work. Jay also found it difficult to make personal relationships with people and was uncomfortable around people he had never met before. Attempting suicide for the second time, he wanted help conforming to the society he lived in.
What the therapist asked finally was simple- "Are you a member of any religious group?".
Jay, being an atheist, said that he did not buy into any religion and that he didn't see where that had anything to do with his issues. The therapist told him that it had nearly everything to do with his problems.
The question is, does religion have any correlation to mental health?
Atheism is on the Rise
Misconceptions About Atheism
Atheism should be defined before this article goes any further.
Atheism is the belief that there is no God/god(esses) and that there is no other supernatural creator(s), governing over the human population or no. It is the thought that human beings were created over a few billion years of careful evolution and that the universe does not need a supreme ruler to govern it.
Atheism is not an inference that a god mistreated them, so there is no god. There is a large population that thinks that atheists will one day 'come around' because they are rebelling against the master of the universe like a spoiled teenager. Atheism is not satanic-worshiping and atheism is actually not a religion at all. Pretending otherwise is an insult to atheists and implies misinformation.
The name says it all.
A (meaning 'no') and theism (gods).
Atheism in Psychology
Though it is quite common for people to have a religion, it is not required for a human being to have a successful life. In fact, Albert Ellis said that "The elegant therapeutic solution to emotional problems is quite nonreligious... the less religious they [the clients] are, the more emotionally stable they tend to be."
The conflicting viewpoint is upheld in organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, who believe that the human being is helpless and that a belief system is the only way to overcome any problems that a human might face.
The differences between these two viewpoints is enormous not only obviously, but also on a deeper level that might only become apparent in a therapy session.
It is possible that atheists are more likely to be depressed than their religious counterparts. This is largely cited to the fact that atheists do not believe in an afterlife and that they believe that death marks the end of their existence forever. This can make one depressed, understandably, when looking around and asking "is this really it?".
On the other hand, studies show that more believers suffer from anxiety disorders based upon their fear that they are going to hell for bad deeds in their life. Most Gods in mainstream religions hold some sort of Law and Code where basic human desires are worthy of eternal damnation. It is also noted that most mainstream religions hold that no one person is perfect, leading to a hash of different self-esteem issues.
For Your Consideration, a Case-Study
I have a chronic illness. It’s not cancer, and it’s not heart disease: I have a chronic mental illness. I frequently deal with suicidal thoughts. I have gone through periods when I’ve had thoughts of killing myself every single day. Once, it lasted for two and a half years. I’m kept alive by my boyfriend, my family, my psychologist, my psychiatrist, and loads of medications. It’s all very precarious. A shift in any of these supports could be fatal.
When my previous therapist, after four years of therapy for extreme depression, asked if I believed in God, I knew that I was in trouble. If my therapist was resorting to God, what hope was there for me? I explained that I had no faith. I have no memory of ever believing in God, but I do remember a period when, being extraordinarily depressed, I tried to believe in something other than what I had in my life in order to try to relieve myself of suicidal thoughts. I wanted to find solace in something that might help me fight the darkness. I was often driven to self-injurious and self-destructive behaviors. If only I could find some comfort outside of myself! I know better now; I no longer think that a belief in a god will be a substitute for my suicidal thoughts.
Ironically, I’m a psychologist, which means that I sometimes work with individuals who have mental illnesses that cause suicidal thoughts. Some may question the wisdom of this. Others think that my condition can result in an enhanced understanding and sensitivity to the feelings of my patients. I’ll leave it to others to decide.
Struggling to help me, a friend once said, “Let go and let God.” I didn’t understand what this meant, and I still don’t. I also don’t understand what it means when people say God only gives you what you can handle. I know I have far more than I can handle.
I don’t think that disbelief in an afterlife affects my suicidal thoughts. Am I more or less likely to act on these thoughts be cause I have no faith? Who can say? So, I am left with no faith and frequent thoughts of wanting to end my life. A journey toward nothingness. But I still have my boyfriend, my family, my psychologist, my psychiatrist, and my meds. I hope that this will be enough.
Of course, this is a discussion that is fought over just as much as the subject of religion itself is fought over.
There is apparently no 'right' or 'wrong' answer, and that is alright.
The important thing is that atheist patients are treated with as much respect and care as their believing counterparts. They do not deserve to be treated with pity or guilt-tripped into accepting a religion in order to help themselves. Accepting religion is a purely personal and inconsequential choice that has very little bearing in the minds of the mentally afflicted.
If your doctor is guilt-tripping you, or telling you that religion is the only way to feel better, I suggest looking for a new therapist. There are plenty out there that are more than willing and capable of helping you without the need for religion.