Religious Trauma Syndrome: How some organized religion leads to mental health problems

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by Valeria Tarico

At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia.  When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister.  “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said.  “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.

But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia.  I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

A few years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”


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17 COMMENTS

  1. One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse”

    Hmmmpf. I’d call both catholicism and islam highly abusive even in their mildest forms. I might allow that the C of E I grew up with – more tea vicar?, oh go on have another crumpet, – is reasonably benign as far as religions go and yet still teaches that everyone is a sinner. To put such a burden on children is a foul and disgusting practice and quite patently qualifies as child abuse. Catholicism is a hundred times worse and conjures up images of pedophile priests and grim faced nuns beating school children’s knuckles with wooden rulers.

    I actually find it hard to believe that anyone can endure either catholic or muslim indoctrination without ending up at least somewhat scarred. The sole catholic YEC fundie (early 30s at the time) I once knew for a couple of years certainly appeared to struggle with his belief system and once admitted he drank too much and hid the empty bottles in the car so his mother who he still lived with didn’t get to find out. He lived, to my mind at least, in a constant state of denial and cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile his indoctrinated belief that the bible was perfect and inerrant with its multiple obvious contradictions and mistakes. For example, thou shalt not kill yet you must kill witches, homosexuals, children who disobey their parents and people who work on the sabbath. By rights he should have tried to kill me being an atheist, not to mention my disregard of the sabbath and the fact that I’m quite sure as a child I more than once refused to do what mummy told me.

    I really struggle to understand how hard it must be for such people as him to live in this constant state of having to ignore god’s instructions in the bible where they conflict with current law or morality but then fearing that still makes you a sinner in god’s eyes and that you’ll then end up in hell for eternity anyway. No wonder he turned to drink.

    The religions, or cults perhaps is a better description, that actively shun any transgressor and force families to break up are some of the most foul IMO. Amish, Mormon, Scientology etc. This really only says one thing to me. If either a religion has to be made compulsory by law on pain of death (many islamic countries) or the fear of even the tiniest bit of dissent in the ranks is such that no one is allowed to speak to that person any more then the belief system they’re trying to peddle to you is clearly made up lies and bullshit. You don’t have to force people to believe things that are patently true and supported by evidence. The truth always speaks quite eloquently for itself.

  2. Religious Trauma Syndrome: How some organized religion leads to mental health problems

    Some?

    Is not delusion alone a mental health problem? This aside from fundie damage to the cognitive process syndrome.

  3. Religious Trauma Syndrom is totally real and underestimated. I happen to know a few individuals, including myself, who suffered mental abuse being forced to follow Catholic religion or Jehovah’s Witnesses early in their childhood. Believing there is a God who talks to his followers is entirely shizophrenic. The victims are those who were actually deceived to believe that it is a fact that there is a God which can talk to the inner being through prayer and meditation. Since almost everyone who follows a certain religion is sane because they actually don’t believe the nonsense they say is real, those who become abused and develop mental illness are thought to be insane just like that, for no obvious reasons.
    Some individuals I know that were victims of religion developed various mental disturbances, such as panick attacks, anxieties, acute paranoia and even a schizophrenic-like disorders. Once they completely turned away from the religious beliefs and dogmas their symptoms and disturbances disappeared. It is entirely possible that religion if taken for granted, and its beliefs taken as facts can cause mental illness.

  4. Wow, I think I will have a lot to say about this article. I must digest all this first!

    Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive
    anyways?

    To start- people who are depressed, anxious, or obsessive are only going to get worse with religion. I’m starting to understand self- defeating behavior, lack of confidence, and feelings of inadequacy in a new light.

  5. Dr Marlene Winell’s work on religious trauma syndrome is excellent. The assumption that religion is good for people, especially children, has to be dispelled, and the work being done by psychologists like Dr Winell is showing up the real dangers posed by religious indoctrination. The religions in question in this context are revelatory religions — that is religions that claim to be divinely or supernaturally revealed — so that, even if someone raised in it does not suffer any trauma, he or she is still compromised intellectually by the irrational division of mind into natural and supernatural standards of truth.

    All three Abrahamic religions are revelatory and give rise at least to this kind of mental dysfunction, whereby two contradictory criteria for truth (reason and faith) are simultaneously followed. No matter how much love and compassion are preached in them (oddly, the practice of the same is never so rigorous), revelatory religions tend to be authoritarian, dogmatic and controlling, given that they are regarded as coming from an ultimate, supernatural source of reality and authority, so it is no surprise to read here that Dr Winell and her colleagues are very busy with cases of RTS, cases involving not just the compromising effects of cognitive dissonance but all the other pathological effects mentioned in the article.

    Revelatory religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism are harmful by their very nature, and it is high time for this to be announced from the housetops. These religions do not deserve the respect they have traditionally been accorded; they should instead be ignored as unworthy of reasonable people and be mentioned in public only where there is a need to warn people of their dangerous (e.g. child-harming) teachings and practices. Let them be anathema.

  6. Dr Marlene Winell’s work on religious trauma syndrome is excellent.

    Just by labeling the pathological syndrome, Dr. Winell has made an invaluable contribution not only to the mental health profession but more broadly to public awareness of the harm that religion can pose to society, especially to the mental health of developing children and minors. More than merely coming up with a label, Winell has provided a comprehensive description of the syndrome, its causes and psychological effects, along with implementing courses of therapeutic counseling for helping victims work through the trauma of abusive religious indoctrination.

    Still secular movements must avoid their own authoritarian temptations in condemning “Religion” as a monolithic expression of human aspirations. Some caveats come to mind.

    Many mainline or progressive churches have distanced themselves from punitive-authoritarian fundamentalism. Many are moving toward a humanist version of seeking God through the exercise of conscience, prayer and meditation. They strive to achieve a personal, often mystical oriented connection with a compassionate, empathetic entity believed to be a Supreme being. Scripture, traditional doctrine and teaching are selectively and metaphorically interpreted to pursue the new approach. In any event, many church goers do not deviate from normal behavior any more than atheists. Winell would include a large class of people within “healthy religion.”

    More importantly, depending on the geographical region, significant majorities or minorities actually believe this stuff. Legal sanctions are available against egregious cases where religious cult members or leaders commit statutory crimes against persons. Nonetheless, freedom of speech, conscience, and religion renders prosecution for disseminating harmful “crazy’ beliefs problematic at best and virtually impossible in practice. Individuals who believe they have been mentally harmed by religious indoctrination, must still come voluntarily to a therapist for diagnosis and treatment usually after traumatic separation from religious family and community. Under law parents are given wide discretion for the beliefs they chose to teach their children. Making exceptions for minors to justify legal intervention against parental rights to teach beliefs to their children stymies the system at square one.

    Pew research shows that religion (predominantly Christian) in America is collapsing under its own toxic, ridiculous and boring weight. About 35% of adults under age 35 have joined the ranks of the unaffiliated with all the signs pointing to the Nones share of the population increasing year after year (including growing percentages of atheists and agnostics). In my view, Secular Humanists are better advised to stay the scientific-rational-moral course of discrediting religion rather than adopting extremist claims that RELIGION is mental illness; RELIGION is child abuse. Why pour petrol on a smouldering fire?

  7. Ah well you see there’s the real material world full of energy, atoms etc, – and then there’s this “spiritual” world full of spirits. I hope that explains it clearly ?

  8. Cairsley- well said. Also, there is the damage done when the child grows up and realizes he/she has been betrayed and lied to. That damage is worse than anything. The fact that parents really believe in the dogma and don’t realize the harm they have done only adds a deep sadness to the hurt.

  9. I think Winell is simple-minded and trying to sell something. I have a lot of those symptoms. A lot of the symptoms she describes are experienced by everyone (in varying degrees). I am as up in arms about religion as anyone else on this site, and we all know that religion is harmful, deadly, toxic, pernicious, insidious. That repression, a product of religion, produces neurotic symptoms, was recognized by Freud and others in the 19th Century, that religion is psychologically harmful to individuals and to societies is beyond dispute (or should be).—But to call it a root cause is irresponsible. We need more data, more evidence. To insist that it is the root cause of anxiety and depression, etc., all those symptoms that can be found in all psychiatric patients, seems too easy, seems premature and unscientific.
    That’s all we need – another disorder.
    Maybe the patient that was quoted has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or maybe RTS is a legitimate diagnosis. Who the hell knows. This is a complex matter. You can’t just say: “this is the cause.” Do we need another label? another disorder? another syndrome? Perhaps. But that can undermine the process of treatment; “we” (I am not a psychologist) should treat patients and people with these symptoms on an individual basis. Maybe the people describing their symptoms in the article were also abused or had other traumatic experiences and are using religion as a way of protecting themselves from the real source(s) of their illness or condition.
    (Postpartum depression is something different. There a direct cause is clearly identifiable.)
    Sounds iffy to me. This cheap little low-brow article didn’t impress me.

  10. Dan
    Jul 13, 2015 at 5:57 am

    But to call it a root cause is irresponsible. We need more data, more evidence. To insist that it is the root cause of anxiety and depression, etc., all those symptoms that can be found in all psychiatric patients, seems too easy, seems premature and unscientific.

    I don’t see a problem with a diagnosis that religions are a root cause of anxiety and depression, in some followers or ex-followers.

    Clearly there is no exclusivity, so it would be a mistake to generalise this to claim religions were the root cause of these conditions in all cases.

  11. Alan4discussion
    Jul 13, 2015 at 7:04 am

    […]religions are a root cause of anxiety and depression, in some followers or ex-followers.

    Agreed.—Nice to interact with you again, Alan; it’s been a while. (I’m the Schopenhauer guy. New avatar.)
    I wish I could discover the “root causes” of some of my difficulties, although I am not entirely sure that a discovery of that kind would necessarily be curative in itself.
    I think you’re right, though; if someone can free himself or herself up enough to be able to recognize that they have been indoctrinated, and that their religious upbringing wreaked havoc upon his psyche, then I would consider that an important breakthrough.
    Awareness on the part of (so-called) mental health professionals of the psychic hazards and consequences of religion should be increased; I wonder, however, just how helpful these diagnostic terms and labels are sometimes. You exhibit a set of symptoms, you’re diagnosed with a “disorder” and prescribed medication. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for medication, but psychoanalytic psychotherapy and other (creative) ways of combating neurosis and mental illness is being replaced by neurology. I sense that we’re losing sight of the role that the unconscious plays in our lives, our mental lives. Soon the unconscious will be regarded as an old, outdated idea,—as obsolete. I hope not.
    (I have to confess that I am not really an authority on this subject. I sense a mild touch of pretense in my comments sometimes. Good to own up to that from time to time.
    Cheers

  12. Dan
    Jul 13, 2015 at 9:04 am

    I wish I could discover the “root causes” of some of my difficulties, although I am not entirely sure that a discovery of that kind would necessarily be curative in itself.
    I think you’re right, though; if someone can free himself or herself up enough to be able to recognize that they have been indoctrinated, and that their religious upbringing wreaked havoc upon his psyche, then I would consider that an important breakthrough.

    You have probably noticed that I have a clear perspective from a different viewpoint to many – both as a scientist, and as someone who has been free of supernatural beliefs for around 55 years, – but with experience of interactions with people of several religions and none.

    As a child, I was subjected to failed attempts at indoctrination by various Xtian denominations, before I cast off all of them.

    I had role models in my father and some of his colleagues who were atheists and scientists.

  13. In some parts of the world the bigotry and trauma are severe!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-33557325

    A young couple have attempted to commit suicide in the grounds of the Taj Mahal, India’s famed monument to love.

    Police say the pair – a Hindu and a Muslim – slit their own throats after their parents had refused to let them marry because of different religions.

    They were found in a pool of blood, and are now said to be in a stable condition.

    Marriage outside religion or caste still attracts censure, and even honour killings, in parts of India.

    “The girl cut her throat first followed by the boy,” said deputy superintendent Aseem Chaudhary, the AFP news agency reports.

    The Times of India quoted the young man as saying that the couple had tried to convince their parents to change their minds, but that “the boundaries of religion remained the biggest hurdle”.

    “We did this after failing at all possible ways to be together,” he said.

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