What’s the Harm? Religion, Pseudoscience, and Mental Health

Miri Mogilevsky, Allegra Selzer, Ania Bula, Courtney Caldwell, Niki M., Nicole Harris


Purpose of this panel is to talk about our experiences with mental illness and how those intersect with religion and pseudoscience. A lot of skeptics talk about intersection with physical health but not so much with mental health.


MM: I really appreciate your openness and bravery talking on the internet in front of everyone. I think speaking openly helps combat the stigma, but mental illness often makes this difficult. Chicken and egg syndrome.

Your history with mental illness and pseudoscientific or religious treatment you’ve tried.

AS: I didn’t grow up in a religious household and wasn’t diagnosed until college. But my encounters with religion were in an evangelical church. I thought be possessed by a demon because I was having a panic attack, which was actually related to reading the bible and finding something that didn’t make sense. I was told that I wouldn’t have these panic attacks if I loved god. I’ve had more recent encounters with new age woo. I was pagan for a while.

AB: Very religious household, shaming culture in part caused my anxiety issues. I was suicidal during problems with arthritis and had no one to talk to because religious viewpoint is that suicide is weak, and you’re a terrible person to think of it. Told to talk to priest but terrified to do that because I thought he’d tell me I didn’t love god enough or was selfish or bad person, and I didn’t need that. What was making me suicidal was directly related to the health condition, and does it make you a bad person to want to end constant excruciating pain?

This is actually the first time I’ve been diagnosed and treated for depression. Just started meds. Started being more open about it because I see the same thing in family members, like my sister, and the whole “we can’t get that treated because it would mean something wrong with her as a person.”

CC: Dad was evangelical pastor. Struggled with anxiety and depression very young. Told because sin in my life, not praying hard enough. In high school, sexual assault triggered a downward spiral. I’m over the roughest parts, but it’s still a day-to-day struggle.

NM: Diagnosed with depression at 14, but had always been anxious, down child. In religious African American community, the concept of having a mental illness is alien. When I was in the hospital, my parents told me I was costing them a lot of money. They wanted me home and they would pray. So brief stay didn’t help. But two weeks later, back in because I tried to kill myself again. Kept it mostly to myself living with my family. Not until in college could I say I had depression, but I had no money for treatment. Alt med was closest I had. I was in Pagan community. Didn’t work very well!

NH: When 13, depression diagnosis. Anxiety not until later, although afraid of everything my entire life. Raised catholic, but not strict catholic. Allowed to leave church before being confirmed. Big anxiety trigger in early teens was being terrified of being abducted by aliens. My supernatural beliefs caused or triggered my anxiety. Not religious but not skeptical  beliefs. Did a lot of harm.

Depression isn’t as bad. Anxiety is still here. Triggers come and go. Not on any meds except for during an anxiety attack. Did a lot of alt med in early 20s because nowhere else to turn. Uninsured. Didn’t realize the county provided sliding scale for mental health. Did a lot of Kava and Bach’s Rescue Remedy.

AB: Most of my experience was with woo, like the attitude you should have. Think positive. Try yoga.

NM: Have you tried positive thinking?

AS: Yes, I have, and I can’t. That’s the problem.

AB: Physical problems not real. You’re not thinking positively. That’s why you have arthritis and Crohn’s disease.

AS: My rebellion as a teen was joining evangelical church. Father took me to a friend of his, but there was a lot of “there are demons on your shoulder.” Not just a Christianity thing. The yoga thing is often brought up.

NH: I had an anxiety attack in yoga class about a month ago.

AS: Yoga and meditation have more of a maintenance benefit. Not helpful for something acute. If you can’t get out of bed. I’m recovering from self-harm itself. It won’t help with that. It can be a new way to hurt yourself.

AB: Yeah, that stuff can be helpful only once you’re out of crisis mode. Yoga is recommended for my arthritis as well. Yoga is like this panacea. Like when I can’t move my leg, I want to put it behind my head.

MM: Has religion or pseudoscience affected how you see your mental illnesses and yourself?

AS: Like crap. With this pagan woo, the positive thinking just makes you feel worse. There’s a lot of shaming. I’m just not good enough. I should be able to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. Being told to stop taking my mood stabilizers because they’ll block my chakras. I’ve had bad experiences with medications too, although not to the degree of woo.

AB: I was a good Catholic. I really believed in God. The fact that I had depression, it feels like you’ve been abandoned by God. They say, just put all your faith in God, you’ll feel better. So I was doing that and then wondering what have I done that’s so terrible that God won’t help me. Not only all these people think I’m a terrible person for feeling this way but apparently God does too.

Telling people to go to your priest or pastor, but they have no psychology or counseling training. Do they really think they can help people without any training whatsoever.

NM: While struggling to hide my depression and pretend to be OK as a teen, I was struggling with guilt of losing faith, living this lie. Still really active in church. Great impression of devout Christian girl. But inside, this sucked. When I got out of the church and trying to figure where to go next, I was figuring out who I was. Was I really depressed or just looking for attention, which my family accused me of. I have a lot white friends, and apparently they influenced my mind?

So I identified as a Pagan, and I was hoping the meditation, rituals, energy work would take this monkey off my back. And I’d have an anxiety attack during visual meditation, thinking I was crap and didn’t deserve to live. And this wasn’t working, so that must be my fault.

MM: What influenced you to try alt med or religious therapies?

CC: I wasn’t given a choice to choose other than religion. My parents are both biblical counselors. Which is the Christian alternative to actual treatment. They have their own conferences about how to talk to people to be better Christians, which will of course solve all their problems. I wasn’t given the option of treatment because my parents just wanted to counsel me.

AB: Woo and religion prevented me from getting actual treatment. The stigma made it harder to get actual treatment. It wasn’t until I started reading people who dealt with it that I finally understood and I was able to go to a doctor and get help. I feel nervous about talking about depression because I feel my family will blame my atheism for it.

AS: I thankfully did have insurance once I got out of the house, but I was desperate. When you’re suicidal and the medication isn’t working. When you have manic states, you get paranoid about people trying to poison you, that’s really harmful.

MM: This shows us why we need to be extremely compassionate in our approach to people using pseudoscience. I felt I had nothing to lose trying a bottle of herbal pills. I was desperate. My life was on the line. Many us want to advocate for evidence-based mental health care, and lots of skeptics do this well, but it often becomes rather shaming. “You don’t know any better. You’re not doing your research.”

NM: Like on the Chronic Pain panel. Don’t shame the individual. Just talk about evidence, about what actually works. I’m all for shaming the purveyors of this crap.

NH: If you’re talking about someone you’re worried about, frame it as worry about their health. I was afraid a friend was going to go off meds for homeopathy, but when assured they were going to do both, I just backed off. You need to know when to jump in and when to back off.

AB: The medical community shames people who have mental illness. I was sent to a weight management clinic by my doctor because prednisone caused weight gain, which was bad for my arthritis. The clinic showed up as psychiatric treatment. Next time I went in to the ER, I wasn’t offered pain meds. I usually got a shot because they know I have Crohn’s and know I’m in pain. This time, it was, she has Crohn’s but she had a psychiatric visit, so I’m not giving her pain meds. They gave me something I could have gotten over the counter. I wouldn’t have made  the effort to go into the ER if I wasn’t in pain, if over the counter worked.

AS: My initial attempt to get evidence-based treatment involved shaming. A lot of people said this is normal because you’re in college. We really need to focus on getting rid of that stigma and talking about it, especially when I’m healthy, I can talk to people who are struggling and tell them it’s not their fault. I have seen skeptics shame people. I was told Physician, heal thyself. I was just asking for support.

AB: Same with my symptoms of ADHD. Luckily, psychiatrists are covered in Canada. I went in, and she gave me a speech about drug-seeking behavior. A lot of the treatments are amphetamines. I’m on anxiety meds in the evening, and ADHD meds in the morning.

I have a damaged hip because doctors thought I was drug seeking. I yelled at her for like an hour that if anyone knows about the harms of drug seeking, it’s someone harmed by not getting drugs because doctors think I’m drug seeking.

AS: A lot of this is pseudoscience in the medical field, in academia. There’ve been studies about medications being advertised in doctors’ offices. I recommend that people talk to pharmacists, not a doctor, with questions.

MM: Anything skeptics can take away from pseudoscience or religion. Some say that woo practitioners have a holistic approach that traditional doctors often don’t.

NM: We can take away the community part. Having a group of people with similar core beliefs, so you can reach out. In religious community, you have resources rooted in your shared beliefs.

CC: I will second that, with community. We got such an overwhelming response to these panels. There’s a huge need. A huge interest. A lot of potential for us to organize around this and provide active, positive change and make ourselves more visible to people struggling more quietly.

AB: A lot of churches put together resources packets.

MM: We have that, the secular therapist project.

AB: It’s not necessarily accessible. I’m in Canada. A therapist here occasionally jabs at atheism as possibly making things worse. More community, more support groups. We have Living without Religion support groups. The response has been really positive.

MM: Would it be worthwhile to have support groups specifically for those struggling with mental illness?

Yeses all around.

AS: With the caveat that a professional runs it or it can become a topping each other’s stories thing.

AB: I’d love to see a podcast or hangout about mental illness and dealing with chronic pain. In the Chronic Pain panel, there was so much we still wanted to get to, and the feeling that we finally get to talk about this stuff.

MM: One reason we have so much trouble with woo in mental health community is that antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs are still relatively new and not completely understood. How can we sway people away from pseudoscience when there already is so much doubt about how these things work, whether they work.

NM: Take away the stigma. Being told I was taking in poison that would turn me into an emotional zombie. Didn’t help me take my meds.

AS: We need to help people self-advocate. Feeling like a zombie means you’re probably not on the right one or at the right dose. We also need to recognize that when meds do work, the feelings that surface aren’t always good feelings. We need mostly more support.

AB: I wasn’t in crisis mode, so I didn’t realize right away that I was in depression. I sought help. Wanted therapy. Took higher dose of citalopram. I had had trouble feeling my love for my partner even though I knew it was there. The meds helped me actually feel that love I knew was there. It was like being jacked in.

MM: Question from chat: Do you think strong religious belief can trigger mental illness or is it just a vehicle for mental illness?

CC: Be cautious equating religion and mental illness. It can be really demeaning toward both sides. I don’t it’s a vehicle so much as a trigger.

NH: Same as me having a trigger that I was going to be abducted by aliens or shadow people were. So the supernatural or religious belief might manifest in their anxieties.

AB: A sick brain is going to get its triggers and ways of painting things from its environment.

AS: A conspiracy environment fed my anxieties about people trying to keep me complacent with medication.

NM: If you hear voices and are religious, you’re more likely to think they are demons or angels. If pagan, those voices might be fairies, or goddesses, or whatever. It does color your experience at the very least.

MM: Mental illness can be culturally bound to some extent. If taught certain interpretations for states of mind, that’s how you are likely to interpret them.

NM: Book about history of positive thinking movement, and roots in US in part from Protestant work ethic. Physical and emotional symptoms of “melancholy” and told to lay in bed in the dark with no one talking to you, and douche, etc., all kinds of strange things. I’m not working hard enough. I’m not down on myself enough. Life here on earth is supposed to be drudgery.

MM: Why do people who usually apply good standards of evidence sometimes drop those standards when it comes to mental health care.

NM: Everyone has a blind spot.

AB: Psychology and psychiatry aren’t always seen as sciences. You can’t always scientifically measure certain things with emotion and have it be relatable to everybody.

AS: A lot of it’s desperation. But MRIs are showing a physical difference in the brains of depressed people. Unfortunately, science journalists are looking for headline grabbers, and drawing conclusions from studies that did not have that conclusion.

MM: What can we as skeptics do for someone who may be having mental health problems.

AB: Don’t judge. Listen. Don’t try to force your opinions of how people should be. Stop seeing emotions as irrational. More talks by people struggling with mental health, with physical health. One reason alt med has such effect is they appeal to emotion.

Those of us who have been hurt by alt med can use our own emotions as well.

MM: I’m gonna jump back in because I have feelings. The most harmful thing for me hasn’t been people who say they can’t deal with it but those on white horses who insisted they would save me. I respect and admire these people for caring so much, but that’s really fucking dangerous, because they would not practice self-care.

You need to recognize your own limitations and that this isn’t just having a bad day. It’s me saying really disturbing things.

So practice good skepticism on yourself. Learn the scripts. Learn to say you care and want to listen, but can’t handle right now. What else can we do to help you? Can we just watch a movie.

AS: That’s what I mean by vicarious traumatization. Don’t try to save people. Know your limitations. Educate yourself because the person may not be able to. Caretakers need to care for themselves.

NM: Can I triple on that no white horse thing. The number of self-help books shoved at me by people who have no idea what I’m going through, and suddenly expect me to jump out of my depression. And I am a people pleaser. So when someone gives me something that’s supposed to help, I feel worse that it didn’t.

AB: Then the people who get angry for not getting better from their efforts.

NM: Right, like how did this get to be about YOU?

MM: CaptainAwkward.com offers a lot of amazing advice on just this sort of thing.

AB: Support can be more than just emotional support. Helping clean your house when you’re depressed can help a lot. Not being able to muster the energy to clean can leave that clutter that makes you feel worse. Take them to a movie. Buy them dinner. Make them dinner. Doesn’t always have to be talking to the point of crying and eating big jugs of ice cream.

AS: If you’re not trained to do therapy, don’t do it. YOu can hurt people. I have hurt people, I admit it, because I’m not trained in it yet. Be a friend, not a therapist. Listen. Believe the emotions and the pain. Don’t minimize it.

AB: My neighbor was a paranoid schizophrenic. His MIL constantly asked if he was taking his meds. So harmful because he felt everyone was terrified of him, that the one day he didn’t, he’d kill his baby daughter or something.

[Someone]: It’s very othering.

AS: People with mental illness are much more likely to harm themselves than others.

Wrap up!