The link between religion and mental illness is troubling

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Pradip Rodrigues

Many philosophers and social scientists through history have viewed religion as a mild form of insanity. It is because one has to take a leap of faith to believe much of what is written in holy books.
A major feature in the news magazine The Atlantic had a headline that recently caught my attention- China Is Treating Islam Like a Mental Illness.

The article goes on to state that up to a million Muslims are being held in Chinese internment camps. Here they are subjected to an indoctrination where they are forced to renounce Islam, criticize their own Islamic beliefs, and recite Communist Party propaganda songs for hours each day. And just in case that isn’t enough, there are reports of inmates being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, which are forbidden to Muslims.

Not surprisingly, most of the world has ignored this given that it is China, but many around the world are keenly watching this social experiment and trying to figure out what how this all ends. The Chinese believe that those invited to these camps are infected by an ideological illness-religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore must seek treatment from a hospital as inpatients. The Chinese view any religious extremist ideology as a type of poisonous medicine, which confuses the mind of the people. “Religious belief is seen as a pathology.

Last year a very fake news item left thousands of mostly atheists and lapsed Christians in the west quite disappointed. The fake news item revealed that the American Psychological Association had decided to classify strong religious beliefs as mental illness. According to the article, a five-year study by the APA concluded that devout belief in a deity could hinder “one’s ability to make conscientious decisions about common sense matters.” Refusals by Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept life-saving treatments, such as blood transfusions, were given as an example.
In 2006, biologist Richard Dawkins published his book The God Delusion, in which he characterizes belief in God as delusional. Dawkins cites the definition of a delusion as “a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder.”

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The relationship between religion and schizophrenia has been on the radar of psychiatrists for decades now because of the similarities between religious experiences and psychotic episodes; religious experiences often involve auditory and/or visual hallucinations.

The problem is so great that the American Psychiatric Association has issued a mental health guide for faith leaders to help those preaching the word to differentiate between devout belief and dangerous delusion or fundamentalism. The guide includes sections discussing how a person with a mental illness might believe they are receiving a message from a higher power, are being punished, or possessed by evil spirits, and notes the importance of distinguishing whether these are symptoms of a mental disorder or other distressing experience. I would go further and add that any religious priest or leader should be expected to identify individuals who are clearly exhibiting signs of madness and insist they see a mental health professional, who should have an office next door. In fact, mental health therapists should be encouraged to open offices in and around all places of worship as I believe many of their potential clients could be found in and out of these places of worship.

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In recent years thousands of young people from western societies who were indoctrinated by clever manipulators who unleashed upon them a radical ideology cloaked in religious doctrine.
This religious fervour is also responsible for unleashing Hindu lynch mob violence on those believed to be trafficking beef in India. It is in certain religious sects that don’t believe in blood transfusions for example.

I think it is wrong to believe religion causes insanity. The problem is that religion being so potent can be misused and misunderstood by those in mental anguish.

It is true that most normal people even if not religiously inclined tend to gravitate toward religion at times of personal turmoil and stress. Usually religion acts as a soothing balm and offers psychological hope and strength to those seeking it. But there is a case for many such troubled individuals to go out and seek a shrink or a mental health councillor rather than immerse themselves in religious texts and silence. Clearly, religion alone is not for everyone. If a troubled individual takes to religion, there is a very good chance he or she could end up misinterpreting texts to justify certain courses of action that could cause harm to them and to society. Such cases have been documented with alarming frequency in recent years.

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When I see more and more places of worship opening in immigrant-rich regions in Canada, I often wonder if there should also be a mental health doctor on hand and other councillors at a center next to the place of worship.

Severely troubled individuals need all the help they can get and that includes mental health counselling.

And secondly, religious leaders should be obligated to regard mental health professionals as partners rather than look upon them as competition.

Among South Asians, there is stigma attached to admitting mental health problems but that shame quickly goes out the window if and when one of our own goes off and commits a crime, that’s when we will quickly announce that the person suffered mental health issues. Given the clout religious leaders have on new immigrants in particular, it would be the responsible thing to encourage troubled members in the community to seek mental health in addition to the spiritual kind. Also, there should really be an office space for a mental health councillor to have meetings with their clients who happen to be part of the congregation at that particular place of worship. This way people could take care of their mental and spiritual well-being as well as their physical side at the community gymnasium. -CINEWS

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