The subject of a direct link between a person suffering a mental health issue, and religion ( the orthodox way of practicing religion) has always fascinated me. In the Jewish religion, especially amongst teenagers, a vast number of people whom have a form of a psychriatric illness are leaving religion.
The close knit community I live in is an orthodox one, one where you follow the rules, you dress the same or similar to what is considered the “norm”, you know your neighbours, their family, the school they send to and the synagogue they attend, and a whole lot of judgements are presumed based on the above. This is in no way a criticism, it is a fact of community, all small communities have their norms and this is just how it is in ours.
For those who find abiding by cultural norms, and are able to follow the unwritten rules this lifestyle can provide great comfort, you know where you stand, you know your role, you fit in, you will feel loved, accepted and can gain immensely from fitting in. But, what happens to those who don’t? what happens to those who despite being raised in a orthodox close knit community feel the need to break free? Feel stifled and caged by the laws and rules that they are born in to? Those who have perhaps been raised in a strict, cold home where following the rules is of utmost importance, and the ability to express any individuality is frowned upon. We live in a world where knowledge is just a click away, any child who wishes to know about the world around them just need to ask a computer, and if raised in a home where questions are frowned upon, where answers, love and warmth are not given readily the questions become secrets, secrets become lies, lies become anxiety and mental health is a downward spiral.
Religion can be a beautiful, wonderful way of life, it can bring stability and warmth, knowing that at any stage of life those around you will be there, by your side, helping, supporting you in any way you need. I also believe that serving God, to the best of our abilities can be uplifting and provide a life of happiness and love. The Mitzvot (commandments) make sense, the laws are given for our benefit. Women are not (contrary to popular opinion!) tied to the sink, downtrodden and belittled in Judaism, rather our role is so diverse, and we (sorry guys!) do have all the power!!
We live in a time where more and more teenagers and adults are opening up to others, bringing to light sexual abuse, sexual abuse which was not so long ago an hidden, horrendous and forbidden secret, many people in their 40’s, older and much younger are having memories, or strong desires to finally see their perpetrators bought to answer for their perverse and sickening crimes, when the perpetrator has been an orthodox person, or in some cases a Rabbi, a leader of the community, the victim is full of anger, and that anger is directed to the community, the religion and God, as the person who carried out their sickening desires seems or seemed like a man of God therefore it follows that people who follow this persons God are just like him, and mental health issues arise, upon remembering or opening up, or even keeping the secret inside, boiling over and over follow.
A person suffering a mental health issue in the community, has so much to loose, their siblings shunned by matchmakers, the family shamed and more, although the secret of mental health is slowly being talked about and accepted in communities more readily there is a long way to go, so a person who may have anxiety will have the added burden of keeping it a secret, leading to anger, depression and sometimes suicide, by leaving the community and becoming secular they are more free to express themselves in a way they feel is right for them.
So, why are teenagers and adults, especially those with mental health issues leaving the religion. Below are some interesting points I came across, whilst researching the link between religion and mental health:
“Early 20th-century interest in religion and mental health was sparked by Freud’s view of religion as intrinsically neurotic. Freud described religion and its rituals as a collective neurosis, which, he suggested, could save a person the effort of forming an individual neurosis. For example, in an early paper, Freud (1907/1924) spelt out the similarities between religious rituals and obsessional rituals. He argued that guilt is created when rituals are not carried out, and assuaged when they are, so a self-perpetuating ‘ritualaholic’ cycle is set up.”
From the above, we can assume Freud was not a admirer of religion, and prescribed rituals, the guilt a person feels, when struggling with religion, when having questions about the way they were raised, questions concerning God and Judaism brings with it guilt, which in turn can bring with it mental health issues.
The way we are raised, how we are taught about God goes a long way to either enrich or demean our mental health, is God a loving, forgiving one, has He put us here for our own benefit or for His? Does he really exist, what is our role in the world, etc. all these questions and the way we seek out answers go a long way in assuring we have positive mental health.
The below paragraph spoke volumes to me:
Religious factors, it has been suggested, are not always beneficial (Loewenthal, 2007; Pargament, 1997). For example, those who believe in a punishing God tend to have poorer mental health outcomes than those who believe in a benign, supportive God. However, some common suspicions about the harmful effects of religion have not always been borne out. For example it has been suggested that religion often fosters guilt, and this may serve to raise levels of anxiety, depression and obsessionality. Empirically, the effects are not so straightforward. True, generally there is an association between religiosity and measures of guilt and obsessionality, particularly in religious traditions that encourage scrupulous detailed observance, such as some forms of Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam. However, measures of guilt do not predict anxiety and depression, and measures of religiosity do not predict clinical obsessionality (obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD) (Lewis, 1998). Greenberg and Witztum (2001), in their studies of OCD among orthodox Jews, concluded that religion offers ways of expressing the disorder, but does not in itself foster the disorder.
Living according to the strictest of rules can therefore bring with it guilt, which results in many different mental health issues, but, if we live with these rules through love and devotion, in a positive way, realising that God is there for us, and guilt should not be a deciding factor surely our lives would be enriched.
Lastly, having been in the psychiatric ward, a huge part of people leaving religious lifestyles is living with people who to the day you entered the ward, have been aliens to you, a strictly observant teen or adult may never have encountered the outside world, may never have spoken to anyone outside of their faith, met people who can dress how they wish, eat what they wish, see what they desire, and speak freely, to a vulnerable person, whom may not get many visitors, may not feel supported by the community due to the secrecy of the nature of their illness this life seems an answer to everything, the anger they feel towards those living close to them, and leading an observant life, is shown by leaving the community, publicly dressing and acting in a way they know will be shameful to their family and community, usually though they are crying out for acceptance and love.
Lots of love