Religious groups aspire to be agents of psychological and spiritual healing. Yet frequently they stigmatize people who suffer from mental health conditions or problems as sinful, demonically influenced, and weak-willed. Depression, anxiety, psychosis, and addiction are treated as symptoms of sin, and people who suffer from them are offered religious remedies that often do little to help, or make things worse, because they fail to address underlying psychological or medical causes. Additionally, religious fear- and control- based teachings can be so psychologically damaging as to create mental health disorders in otherwise healthy individuals or exacerbate latent and preexisting conditions in vulnerable and sensitive individuals.
Growing up as a Pentecostal, Evangelical Christian, I suffered from anxiety from early childhood. As a 5-year-old boy, I was terrified of falling asleep at night because I might forget to confess some minor sin and wake up burning in hell. I was tormented by daydreams and nightmares of gruesome images and descriptions of hell I was exposed to in church sermons and media, and I would pray the sinner’s prayer (a prayer of confession of sin for salvation from hell) obsessively, hundreds of times daily. Intense anxiety and obsessive rumination came to characterize much of my mental life, in my approach to spirituality and unrelated domains.
Years later, after working with many clients who suffer similarly from religious harm, I have learned that this particular response to fear-based teachings is very common; indeed, it could be viewed as a rational, proportionate response to the extreme terror that what was taught. Nonetheless, not everyone who is indoctrinated with these teachings develops high levels of chronic anxiety (although most do suffer from anxiety, even if only unconsciously). To this day I do not know whether my disordered-level anxiety was caused by psychologically abusive, fear-based religious teachings, or whether I had a predisposition to anxiety that the religious teachings triggered and exacerbated. It is impossible to determine, and any such distinction hardly makes a difference. Either way, religious teachings caused me tremendous, unnecessary psychological harm.
Not only did my religion cause much of my mental health distress, but it also blamed me for it. Religious groups frequently place the blame of mental health issues on the individual who suffers, portraying it as a matter of moral and volitional failure (sin) that the individual may overcome through the rituals of the religious group (prayer, Scripture reading, confessions, etc.). When I sought help for my anxiety from the Church, I was taught that worrying is a sin and anxiety is a symptom of an unbelieving, rebellious mind. The solution was to confess and renounce my sin of worry, pray for God to heal me, and meditate on Bible passages about trust. In my teenage years, when I experienced symptoms of depression, I was initially offered solace and encouragement from my religious mentors, but when the grace-timer inevitably ran out, I was reprimanded for my unbelief and directed to up-level my religious practice, lest I suffer God’s wrath (or ‘loving discipline,’ as they often called it) and the rebukes of frustrated, psychologically untrained ministers attempting, unsuccessfully, to treat mental health issues with pseudoscientific remedies.
I was very earnest about my religion and took these admonitions to heart. This only served to increase my despair and resulted in feelings of shame, self-loathing, and self-doubt, because nothing I tried worked. Adding insult to injury, not only was I miserable from mental health issues but now I was also stigmatized as a spiritual and moral failure–and I internalized this stigma. It was my fault that I was anxious and depressed, and I deserved the suffering I was experiencing because I had caused it through my sin. Moreover, my inability to overcome my struggles through religious means caused me to deeply question myself. Why were these religious practices seemingly working for everyone else and not for me? Surely, there must be something wrong with me! (I later realized that religious people often say their religion is working for them even if it isn’t, often as a means of trying to convince themselves and others or as an exercise in faith.)
Blame it on the Devil?
Many religions have a solution for when their typical remedies prove ineffective: blame it on the devil (they often try this as a first-line treatment as well). Religious groups often view mental health issues as primarily or partially caused by demons. Within Christianity, Pentecostals and Charismatics are prone to hold this perspective. In the New Testament, sickness and mental disturbance are frequently closely associated with, or seen as being caused by, demons. Jesus sets a precedent for one of the primary activities of his followers to be exorcism: “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness… [Jesus commanded his disciples], “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Matthew 10: 1, 8, NIV).
In the Gospels, Jesus and his followers frequently cast out demons that cause sickness and mental disturbance. For instance, a man popularly referred to by Christians as the demoniac who appears in the biblical text Luke 8:26-39 lived in the tombs away from people, naked, hysterical, and not “in his right mind” (v. 35). According to the text, Jesus cast out many demons from him, and his mental health was restored. (Unfortunately, people with mental health issues who have exorcism ceremonies performed over them are rarely cured and often harmed.) In modern society, such a person might be diagnosed with psychotic disorder and treated accordingly. However, in Jesus’s time, there was no conceptual framework for psychopathology. Therefore, in the Bible, mental health issues were often viewed solely as spiritual afflictions. Most religions were conceived to address the deepest problems of the human condition and suffering. Their pre-modern, pre-scientific perspectives relied on information believed to carry the status of divine revelation, which often located the causes of suffering in supernatural causes, such as evil spirits and a cursed, flawed human nature. Even though we have the benefit of modern psychological research and practice today, many religious people still rely solely or primarily on ancient texts that had no developed view of psychology for their views on mental health issues.
As a result of reading biblical passages and injunctions that link mental distress with demonic activity, many Christians, including licensed psychotherapists, attempt to treat mental illnesses as if they were demonically caused. People suffering from disorders where consciousness and perception are significantly altered, including psychotic disorders, schizophrenia, drug- and medical- induced psychosis, and bipolar disorder are especially likely to be treated as if they are demon-possessed. Symptoms like hearing voices or seeing people and things that aren’t there (verbal and auditory hallucinations), intrusive thoughts about harming oneself or others, multiple self-states (dissociative identity disorder), and suicidality are often viewed as coming from sinister supernatural forces. We can see how, from a pre-scientific perspective, the religious belief that such symptoms result from demons could seem like a plausible explanation, since many of these symptoms are experienced as mysterious, intrusive, and hostile, as if they come from sinister forces outside the self. However, this perspective is no longer justifiable since modern psychology and psychiatry (as well as many psychospiritual traditions and practices) have rational explanations and evidence-based treatments for these symptoms and conditions.
Notwithstanding, many religious people give their Scriptural texts primacy over research since they view them as the infallible word of God, even when their texts are plainly contradicted by evidence. Because psychology (and science in general) often contradicts their deeply held religious convictions, religious groups often view it with suspicion and warn their followers against education in secular psychology and treatment from secular professionals (which they warn could lead to apostasy), counseling them to seek treatment only from religious clinicians. As a former Christian, I myself received therapy from a Christian counselor, who combined psychotherapeutic methods with meditations on Bible verses. I derived some benefit from this support but ran into the same problems; namely, that biblical directives to trust God and repent were ineffective in treating my mental health issues.
When nothing else worked, I was pointed to deliverance ministries–i.e., exorcism ritualists. I was taught that I still bore the responsibility for my suffering because worrying is sinful, but it also could be caused by demonic supernatural forces who used my sin as an opportunity to “gain a foothold” in my life and torment me. Or I could be suffering from some unknown sin inherited from my ancestors that created an opening for demonic harassment until it is renounced. Regardless, when demonic influence or possession is at play, regular spiritual efforts and mere willpower are insufficient: the demons must be confronted directly. I met with ministers who prayed over me fervently to cast out any demons that might be hijacking my brain. They instructed me to search my life for any sin, including anger and unforgiveness, that might be causing demonic influence and to renounce it, and to pray specific prayers to combat demons. To my dismay, the anxiety demon I was carrying was immune to prayer and the authority of Jesus because these rituals had no effect. I was only mildly disappointed, however, since, by this point, I wasn’t expecting any exceptional results and was somewhat skeptical about the influence of demons.
Many people, however, experience exorcism rituals as traumatic events. The prayers and rebukes can be loud and aggressive, and exorcists will sometimes physically push or shake the recipient. This may even trigger a psychotic episode in individuals presenting with undiagnosed psychosis. Alternatively, recipients of exorcisms may speak in an altered voice because of suggestibility, believing themselves to be possessed by a demon and wanting to benefit from the ritual. This altered voice could also represent repressed anger coming up, an alternate personality state presenting itself, the person entering into an altered state of consciousness due to the intensity of the ritual and emotional experience, or even faking it to please the exorcists and end the ritual. The exorcists inevitably treat any such instances as evidencing their assumption that the problem is demonically caused.
The end result is that people with mental health issues fail to receive services that could actually treat their underlying conditions since they believe their condition has supernatural, not natural, causes. Moreover, if the mental health issue reappears after the treatment, the individual will believe that they are being tormented by a demon for an unknown sin. As a result, they will be directed to additional exorcism rituals, which can result in further trauma.
Believing oneself to be possessed by a demon has consequences. It can result in paranoid levels of anxiety. In many religious sects, adherents are taught to proactively cast out demons whenever their influence is suspected in their own lives or in the lives of their fellow believers, “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus–you have no authority here!” (Loud yelling and spastic physical movements apparently increase the effectiveness of this intervention.) This can result in obsessive-compulsive religious rituals of fighting the devil, mentally and verbally, to ward off (suppress) unwanted thoughts, emotions, and experiences when they arise, and the superstitious, fear-inducing tendency to read the demonic into nearly everything unpleasant that takes place in life.
As a result of this kind of teaching, I, like many, developed a phobia of evil spirits. Not only is my mental distress my fault, I believed, but it could also cause me to be taken over or harassed by a terrifying foreign entity! This led to secondary anxiety–anxiety about getting anxiety because the mere experience of anxiety could lead to demonic torment since it is sinful. Additionally, it led to terrifying fantasies about what it might be like for my consciousness to be powerless and overwhelmed by a tormenting presence. While churches often teach that Christians cannot be possessed by evil spirits (although many teach, they can be), they leave open loopholes, such as the teaching that Christians can still be tormented or harassed by evil spirits because of sin. Therefore, any protection avowed by Jesus and the Church is uncertain since the believer always continues to sin. Additionally, preachers constantly undermine messages of safety and comfort with threatening messages about the power of Satan and the danger of having unconfessed sin.
People who have phobias of demons (which is many people in religious sects that emphasize them, as well as people who have left a religion but are still recovering from its influence) often interpret events like seeing shadowy figures during occasional episodes of sleep paralysis and hearing noises in their houses at night as demonic harassment, Ironically, the belief that one has a demon causing mental health issues can result in a kind of religious psychosis, altering a person’s perception and interpretation of sensory data to fit their schema of demonic harassment. Anecdotally, many people report that once they stop believing in demons, they also stop experiencing demonic-seeming phenomena.
What if Demons Actually Exist?
For those who believe in a God or mysticism (consciousness and conscious entities existing outside the human brain that can be experienced through psychospiritual practices), the idea that sinister entities may exist and cause some mental health issues may seem plausible. Those who hold this perspective should exercise extreme caution in concluding that this is the case in any individual instance and suggesting to the individual of concern that this might be the case. Only trained mental health professionals can legally diagnose mental illness for good reason: mental health issues are complex and coming to wrong conclusions about their cause and treatment can have harmful effects. Moreover, believing oneself to be demon-possessed tends to create tremendous fear and prevents a person from exploring all the options that might actually help them. Spiritual people who believe in evil entities should also keep in mind that psychological issues can appear and feel as if they have supernatural causes. For instance, in the case of paranoid delusions, a person may even see demonic entities, but these might be a manifestation of severe trauma and dread or a neurobiological issue. Mental experience, especially in altered states of consciousness, is often symbolic and archetypal, not literal.
Even if, for the sake of argument, an evil entity may exist and be involved in mental health disturbances (which would be difficult to prove), an individual suffering from such disturbances would be set free by healing traumas and addressing underlying psychological causes, not through brute-force religious exorcisms and ceremonies which do not address these. Effective, evidence-based psychospiritual practices, such as shamanic journeys, psychedelic treatments, and meditation, do not offer magical solutions or appeal to blind faith. Like psychotherapy, they work by taking people to the traumatic origins of problems, helping them to release suppressed emotions, and creating a window of opportunity for new meaning to emerge. Demon or no demon, causes must be treated, or the problem will remain.
Trust (or “faith”) Issues and Mental Health
For religious and spiritual people, the idea that mental health issues might result from a lack of trust in God/the universe/life also remains a possibility. However, this applies not only to spirituality but also to secular psychology, which teaches that a mindset roughly analogous to trust is beneficial. That is, having an orientation towards oneself, people, and life that is open, optimistic, and positive yet not naïve is beneficial, if not essential to mental health. Cultivating this kind of mentality within the frame of one’s worldview, religious or not, may help to improve mental health. Conversely, distrusting and overly negative mindsets breed psychological distress. However, one should not assume that an individual’s mental health issues are rooted in trust issues, even if a person displays mistrust. The causes of mental health issues are varied and complex, and religious professionals should not diagnose mental health issues unless they are licensed clinicians utilizing psychological (not religious) assessments.
It is important to recognize that, contrary to the punitive approach of many religious groups, lacking trust is not a matter of fault, sin, or judgment, and blaming people for their trust issues is counterproductive. On the contrary, for healing to take place, a stance of acceptance, kindness, nonjudgment, and compassion is necessary. A mindset of mistrust and stance of being closed off or pessimistic usually represents an attempt of the psyche to prevent a person from re-experiencing past traumas or negative experiences. Healing usually requires deep inner work and involves feeling suppressed emotions, integrating suppressed memories, and formulating new narratives and mindsets. Religious remedies like meditating on Scriptures about trust or chanting affirmations may provide some temporary relief but generally fail to access the depths of the psyche, which is necessary to heal deeply rooted traumas. Psychotherapeutic interventions and other healing modalities are designed to reach these depths and are accepted in practice because they have been demonstrated to be effective, unlike many religious remedies, which are often accepted simply because of tradition and appeals to divine revelation.
The religious teaching that mental health issues result from demon-possession or sin is also harmful because it constitutes stigmatization, which is discrimination. It blames people for suffering that is not their fault, prevents them from getting care, and degrades their dignity. Carrying the label of demon-possessed or sinner can have real social consequences, and usually results in shame and self-judgment. Mental health issues are complex and can be caused by a variety of factors, including trauma, adverse childhood experiences, conditioning, and biology. Although our unwise and unskillful decisions can reinforce and worsen our unhealthy psychological patterns, we do not consciously choose to develop mental health conditions, and it makes little sense to conceptualize them in terms of punishment, moral failure, or lack of willpower. They are tragic, a function of the suffering that characterizes much of the human experience, and all those who suffer should be treated with compassion, not judgment.
However, it is an unfortunate reality that, in the 21st century, people will continue to seek mental health treatment from religious professionals who lack psychological training–or who oppose psychology outright. What can be done? Chiefly, religious groups should update their theology with an understanding of modern psychology and science and change erroneous and outdated beliefs. They should educate their membership about common mental health stigmas in order to create a safe space for people who suffer. Additionally, they should recognize the scope of their practice and limitations of their expertise and educate their leaders about basic psychological principles and signs of mental illness, partnering with mental health agencies and clinicians and referring struggling individuals to their care. Anyone who suffers from mental health issues and is part of a religious community that stigmatizes mental illness might consider joining a different group that affirms healthier perspectives.
Unfortunately, many people with mental health issues continue to suffer from the religious stigmas and practices they experienced (or continue to experience). Additionally, many otherwise healthy people have developed mental health issues like depression, sexual dysfunction, relationship problems, anxiety, and addiction in response to religiously abusive and controlling doctrines. Fortunately, recovery is possible for those who engage in the healing process with support (leaving controlling groups and teachings behind, connecting with new communities, working with informed treatment professionals, learning about the effects of religious trauma, etc.) As the field of religious trauma research and treatment continues to grow, effective treatment for these conditions will gain become more and more accessible.
Do you feel psychologically traumatized by religious harm, isolated and disempowered by trauma, emotional and spiritual distress in your life? If you would like to talk with me for coaching support, schedule an Inner Freedom Breakthrough Session. In this session, my intention is to help you feel deeply heard and supported, gain clarity, learn a few expert tips, and if it seems like I can support you further, see whether one of my Coaching Programs is a good fit for you.
I’m Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), MA Counseling Psychology In Progress, and I work to help you transform your trauma into the place of your power and connect to a healthy, authentic spirituality that works for you (whether that’s as a spiritual not religious, atheist, religious, transitioning, or agnostic identifying person). I was born into a minister’s family and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, my relationship with God was my passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused me an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. I felt alone, traumatized, and abandoned by the divine. After an agonizing crisis of faith, I rejected religion and spirituality. Then, I reintegrated a healthy spirituality through mystical, humanist, and holistic practices. My passion is to help you to heal and connect with your authentic sense of spirituality or purpose.