Organized Religion To Blame For Rise In Mental Health Problems: ‘Religious Trauma Syndrome’

For many, religion has become a place to visit to escape from the troubles that life brings, as well as a place of sanctuary, or a place to give thanks and share joy. However, for others, organized religion can end up being extremely damaging to the psyche as far too many who interpret those religions use religious indoctrination and texts to abuse the teachings of any particular religion to implement their own thoughts, ideas, and ways of life.

Dr. Marlene Winell dives into this world of abuse first-hand to study it’s damaging effects. She holds her doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies and offers services that aid in recovery from religion. She writes:

“I think we can acknowledge we have a subculture now – a group of people who were once religious but have left and are reclaiming their lives. This group is special and identifiable.  It’s not just exChristian; it’s exMormon, exMuslim, ex-Jehovah-Witness, ex-cult, and ex-authoritarian.”

Winell wrote an article for the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies that explains what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS). Within the article she writes:

“Religious indoctrination can be hugely damaging, and making the break from an authoritarian kind of religion can definitely be traumatic. It involves a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, the future, everything. People unfamiliar with it, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create and the recovery needed.”

She explains that the symptoms are quite similar to those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which she explains as resulting from “experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury and causing feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror. This can be a single event or chronic abuse of some kind.”

The “key dysfunctions” of RTS are listed as:

  • Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
  • Affective: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
  • Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization
  • Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction

And those most at risk to developing RTS include those:

  • raised in their religion,
  • sheltered from the rest of the world,
  • very sincerely and personally involved, and/or
  • from a very controlling form of religion

Winell also writes another article which explains that most of these symptoms that lead to RTS come from a “foundation of fear.” That people who follow these religions often see themselves as bad, pretty much no matter what, and have the never-ending thought of hell-fire cemented into their thoughts for pretty much everything they do.

Those who are in positions of power within any religion may use this power to control, and because these are people of “faith” they often go unchecked or without consequence for their abuse. These leaders may also often tell parishioners to lean farther into a particular religion to solve their inner strife and resentment, instead of acknowledging that religion, may in fact, be the cause.

In Winell’s book “Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion” she approaches religious indoctrination and RTS head-on. She offers, “step-by-step guidance for healing from confusion, fear, guilt, anger, and grief.” Where “readers will learn to reclaim their right to think for themselves, experience freedom and self-love, develop inner resources and personal skills, and celebrate living in the here-and-now.

Winell’s work is unbelievably important and relevant in today’s religious and political climate. Where there is an over-abundance of judgement upon others, as well as those seeking to control others via religious indoctrination — even on the national level.

This is not to say that all religion is bad, or that having a faith in a higher power is what causes these inner battles. However, when religion is abused and does not promote the betterment of the individual, but rather evokes strife — one must really investigate as to whether or not the actual religion is the cause, and what can be done to alleviate the problem. Which may include the need to recover from religion.

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