Religion and mental illness

I think we all know I have a pretty bad knee-jerk reaction to religion, particularly the one I was raised in, due to what I now know was a pretty hefty amount of neglect and abuse on the part of my church and my college. (See Searching for Redemption and Surviving Stigma Intact) One of my college friends was on the receiving end of quite a lot of her own family crap, and posted about the abuse of cults on Facebook today. Her family believed in shunning all medical care, even going to the dentist or optometrist, and she never took any medicine- not even a tylenol- until college. Even to this day she feels horribly, horribly guilty when she takes any medication. Her father died of congestive heart failure, which likely could’ve been avoided by medical intervention. She went through multiple injuries which have left her with osteoarthritis in multiple joints, and a lifelong aversion to the medical community. She was always told to “just have more faith” and she would be healed, so she knew she didn’t have enough faith, and she was being punished with illness. Ironically, it was her older brother in college who once told me that, shortly before everything fell apart; he was the final straw, when I prayed and prayed desperately for healing and didn’t find it, and spiraled into the depression that very nearly took my life.

We are both now in the “heretic closet,” as we have both become agnostic/atheist as a result of the religious abuse we suffered. I think she got it a LOT worse than me, but other than her neuroses about medical care, I think she managed to dodge the mental illness bullet, other than depression over the general situation. Of course, she hasn’t seen a doctor to discuss said depression, as far as I am aware.

Fairly recently, NAMI posted an article on Facebook, Benefits of Spirituality Affirmed, and asked “For some, what is the positive role of religion and spirituality in recovery?” It won’t let me see all the replies anymore for some reason, but quite a few were echoes of my own- where we were abused by people of faith, either out of neglect or ignorance, and thus have left religion.

There needs to be a LOT of education among religious leaders about how to deal with the mentally ill (and quite possibly illness in general) before religion can be any sort of bastion of hope, as it is for others. After all, you can only be anointed with oil and prayed over, told “you just need more faith,” or offered an exorcism so many times before deciding religion simply isn’t for you.

“You just need more faith” is such a cop-out. It’s a disgusting, pithy phrase tossed out by ignorant people, and an impossible standard to attain: how much faith is enough? Can you quantify the amount, please? If faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, where does my faith compare? Can we manifest it to compare it to said tiny seed?


I didn’t think so.

And this, my friends, is why I am hopelessly bitter in relation to all things religion at this point, other than the extremely welcoming embrace of my Pagan, Wiccan, Universalist, agnostic or atheist friends. Most mainstream religions are so very firmly entrenched in shunning those with mental illness (along with gays, and other people they deem unworthy) that it isn’t worth the emotional toll to participate.

What’s your stance? I am just one person out of seven billion, after all, and mental illness accounts for like, 5-10% of the population. Surely other experiences exist- I’m not quite that egocentric. At least, not yet. 😉


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