The Fraught Relationship Between Religion and Mental Health
TW: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation
I have a friend with whom I once had something incredibly personal in common; we were both suicidally depressed. Since I’ve never been one to keep quiet about it, I often jumpstarted our conversations, but fortunately, our discussions were more than just commiserations. We talked about what treatments worked for us and what didn’t, what prevented us from recovering and what encouraged us, and our setbacks and progressions. We still do.
We have something else in common too. Our upbringing was steeped in fundamentalist Christianity, and it still inundates us. These days, he remains religious, while I’m an agnostic atheist (if you need a label); however, our experiences with the church’s response to our mental illnesses were similar, and we reacted to them in the same way.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was still dogmatically religious, yet I had difficulties seeing my depression as the spiritual deficiency so many of my fellow Christians did. It was never explicit, but I was insulted by their suggestions that I should see a pastor instead of a counselor. Even the counselors recommended to me were religiously based.
I de-converted from Christianity for completely separate reasons in case people feel the need to comment that not all Christians think this way. Trust me. I know. But with my de-conversion came my full understanding of the unwitting insidiousness of insinuating that belief in god could alleviate my depression in the least.
I grew up in not only the church but in Christian schools, and in the years leading up to my de-conversion (which was sparked by simply getting out of my bubble), I researched the ins and outs of all brands of Christianity and the scientific, philosophical, and historical defenses of the faith, none of which I found convincing enough to keep going. I’d venture to say there’s nothing new anyone could offer me that would bring me back because the cruxes of my unbelief are 1) I don’t believe in the supernatural and 2) I don’t agree that human beings inherently need saving.
But that’s just a little background lest someone think he knows better than me about my, uh, spiritual needs.
Thankfully, my parents — as religious as they are (very) — were well-versed enough in mental illness to send me to a counselor with no ideological slant. My therapy, however, started with treating my OCD, so although they offered to send me to my mom’s Christian counselor, we all knew that I needed cognitive behavioral therapy, which was not something my mom’s counselor offered.
That’s not to say that there weren’t people around me who undoubtedly believed that all forms of mental illness were a product of demonic presence, not just the spiritual-deficiency-induced existential despair of depression and excessive worry of anxiety disorders.
My friend’s parents, however, did send him to a pastor, and when we talked about it, I urged him to see someone — anyone — with actual training in psychological counseling, religiously-based or not. Eventually, his parents agreed, and he did.
But this was just half the battle for me, anyway. As anyone who is not religious in an evangelical community knows, it’s impossible not to have religion injected into all corners of one’s life even when it doesn’t make sense. When I came to terms with no longer being a Christian, I held out for a year before finally spilling the beans to my family, who, unsurprisingly, did not take it well but didn’t do anything beyond the expected emotional manipulation. (“Why are you doing this to us?” “Why do you want to hurt us?” “This is just a rebellious phase.”) That doesn’t mean I wasn’t negatively affected by it.
My family proceeded to misattribute my decline in mental health to my newfound unbelief instead of to the true culprit: their reaction to my unbelief. They did this to the point that I even began to doubt myself. The difference between how I felt about the religious debacle and my depression, however, was unmistakable to me. They felt completely different. The liberation of shedding my religious belief brought a positive sense of existential uncertainty but a sense of personal alienation. My depression consumed me with existential dread and unplaceable anxiety but exacerbated my personal alienation. All of these forces were confusing and turmoil-inducing but their sources were fraternal, using that word generously.
No one in my immediate circle believed me though. I remember people asking the lord to give me “a sense of peace and purpose,” praying that I would return to the religious fold, and attributing their own recoveries, not to the tireless efforts of medical professionals, but to god and god alone. It was insulting in a way that only people who have been in the same situation could imagine. I was viewed as a child, complete with assertions that I couldn’t be trusted to make decisions about my faith because of my compromised mental state.
It was the ultimate paradox; responsibility for avoiding eternal damnation rested squarely on my shoulders, yet I was in too mentally weak a position to actually make the choice for myself. (It still makes me angry to be perfectly honest, but I cannot express those emotions to this day unless I want to fulfill the “angry atheist” stereotype in the eyes of most Christians.)
When medication and therapy did start to take hold in March, I felt vindicated in knowing my mental health and my lack of religion were not intertwined, but I now keep any and all setbacks to myself. I refuse to express any downward slopes on the nonlinear path to recovery because that is the rock and the hard place I’m stuck between. It would be demeaning and emotionally taxing to face the revival of the mentality that rejoining the faith would help heal me, which would only serve to outwardly validate said mentality.
The symptoms of worthlessness, hopelessness, and purposelessness give religious people a foothold to try to jam their ideology into depressed people’s psyches. If it serves to alleviate someone’s depression, fine, but it typically just belittles the nonreligious and guilt trips the religious. A faith that thrives on people’s lowest moments is no faith of which I want to be a part.
But more than that, the paralyzing discomfort of uncertainty that religion instills gives religious people all the more reason to prescribe their Absolute Truth as an antidote even when that antidote is reductive, unflattering, and identity-erasing (under the guise of finding identity in a one-size-fits-all fashion to boot). My indictment of religion’s relationship to mental health comes from a place of frustration, not anger. It takes a willfully obtuse ideology to not see that it’s not a surefire remedy for mental illness.
It is possible to be religious and empathetic — without the condescension — to those suffering from mental illness; I have met people who do both. But to use religion as an equally effective alternative to medical care or to shame people into subscribing more heavily while claiming to offer “hope, grace, and love” is a recipe for unnecessarily prolonged illness. More often than not, I’ve found that “hope, grace, and love” to be reserved for those who have already fallen in line. And more often than not, offerings of this prescriptive form of love have been a bait-and-switch. Or a carrot-and-stick, depending on the level of fundamentalism.
There’s a difference between “I pray the lord heals you” and “I pray the lord heals you on the condition that you believe in him,” and it’s not discreet. It’s loud, proud, and damaging, and the damage silently persists long after recovery. To deny it is to gaslight those who have been hurt by that emotional manipulation.