Guest Post: The Stigma of Mental Illness and Religiosity: A Dual Insult

Guest post by Katrina Halfaker


My life is defined, to some extent, by my mental disorders. To be chemically different is to be a lesser. It is to be stigmatized. We’re cast as violent, deranged, and irrational even though we are ten times more likely to be victims of abuse, often by those in positions of power, whether they be police officers, academic administrators, loved ones, or strangers on the street.


I’m an atheist with OCD, which is comorbid with other anxiety-based disorders, and I noticed clues of their onset as early as when I was ten, as did my family, though they never took me to a doctor. In the last year, I’ve dealt with mild pubic trichotillomania. Years before, I developed a binge-eating disorder (which led to childhood obesity). It went quiet for a while, but still, it occasionally asserts itself in relapses. Every single person in my immediate family has been or is currently affected by at least one major disorder (diagnosed and undiagnosed: SAD, borderline personality disorder, and depression). I was raised in a religious household and educated until teenage-hood in a low-key Creationist school. We never had a licensed school therapist or nurse, or any provisions outside of an occasional hearing and vision test – but we did have chapel every week.


So, yes: I know the difference between reinforced frameworks and chemical diversity.


Many of you, my fellow secularists, need to understand one very crucial aspect of this dilemma: you have made it personal when you call religion a mental illness. And you have transgressed in ways you believe you have not. And you are unwilling to acknowledge it.

You have explained-away with your justifications in “othering” people you do not understand in order to express a belief of superiority, or perhaps relieve some unconscious guilt. While I understand how tempting it is to write off disturbing cases of criminality and injustice as committed by the “unstable” strictly based on the nature of the behavior, this is a fallacy. In truth, it is far more likely that many of you are uncomfortable with the idea that people can be any permutation of immoral, religious, secular, and neurotypical simultaneously. You need to get over it.


Calling religion a mental illness is not only a false statement, it’s offensive and damaging. For one, it is statistically improbable that every single religious person has a mental disorder, and it is equally improbable that every devoutly religious individual has a mental disorder. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 people will develop a mental disorder. This includes secular people.

Even if you wanted to allege that the roots of religion are in mental disorders, you are still incorrect.


Anthropologically speaking, shamans and other religious leaders are chosen for their ability to organize and provide wisdom, the way they engender trust, and criteria for selection are culturally derived.

Because most people reading this article will be from a Western culture, there is inherent ethnocentrism which needs to be checked. Western (predominantly Abrahamic) religions are not excluded from this organizational structure. They may be considered less  animistic in comparison to other belief systems, but they still contain elements of animism, and a Catholic priest is very much like a “shaman” – the only difference is that it’s of our cultural  context, or a gentrified position, reinforced socially and politically.


This is not evidence for religion being a product of neurological difference, insofar as disorders go.

Often, people will move the goalposts, or argue that “vision” can mean “hallucination.” However, in almost every world religion, it primarily refers to dreams and dream interpretation. In more animistic belief systems, dreams are considered extremely important. They’re seen as prophetic, or as a conduit to communicate with unseen beings, or as occurrences just as real as any form of knowing. The way in which they’re interpreted may differ, but again, there is the distinction: religion is ontological and communal, not the consequence of a “mental abnormality.”


Consider the history of diagnoses and societal inequality: forced asylum, homelessness due to budget cuts, abuse and murder of people with mental disorders as well as those who appear as “other,” the politics of gender and “hysteria” having once been a diagnosis, differential access to resources, the role of media framing, and “queerness” as a mental illness. These are all disgusting instances of how hegemonic ideals have been and are motivation for oppression. “Religion is a mental illness” fits right into that list.

Neurodiversity is taken to mean that any individual under that umbrella, unlike the proverbial majority, has forfeited their claim to coherence, logical processes, and intelligence- even autonomy. It’s a convenient tool to oppress and assault those affected by it, and a convenient tool to silence those one simply disagrees with. It is also a form of privilege, whenever an (often white) and (often male) mass shooter strikes and, out of self-preservation, fights for an insanity plea, hoping the jury will buy it.


These tactics are collectively a manifestation of the fundamental attribution error.


Mental disorders are universal. Religiosity is universal. This does not inherently make them one and the same.


For example, my OCD shifts over time; it chooses compulsions and obsessions from surroundings and contexts. Part of this has to do with a change in landscape. When I committed apostasy, a lot of my stress was relieved; I stopped shaming myself every day and desperately seeking explanations for situations that were just, well, banal, or the result of factors I couldn’t control. I stopped having weeping and body- wrecking fits from the guilt of being alive but never feeling quite spiritual or pure enough.

Christianity was the canvas. OCD was the brush. I may be no longer religious, but I still have my disorders, and my disorders still have something to say. They just operate in new arenas.


Ableism must be deprogrammed from our vocabulary and reasoning for a basic and compassionate reason: stigmatization leads to fewer people pursuing care. We need to be careful as secular people not to confuse religiosity with psychological variance, particularly because religion, like bigotry (and any human system), is conditioned. It is a construct designed by people. To encourage another form of vilification would make us no more moral than any person of faith.


Negative stereotypes and pervasive misinformation hurt us all. “In 2011, only 59.6% of individuals with a mental illness – including such conditions as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder – reported receiving treatment” (Corrigan et al, APA). If 1 in 4 people in the world will, at some point in their lives, struggle with a mental disorder, what makes you think your problematic views will not directly affect the quality and affordability of care you, or someone you know, can receive?


The longer you bleat on about how assured you are of your supposedly trustworthy opinion, the more embarrassing it will be for you to renounce the error.


As infrastructural progress stalls and regresses, certain populations and their intersections (e.g., the poor and working classes, military veterans, LGBTQIA individuals, people of color, etc.) suffer  even more due to systemic prejudice, lack of legal protections, few (if any) resources…and yes, the stigmatization of mental disorders. The stigmatization many of you proffer, disguised as a sound and valid judgment. One does not have to be religious to be upset about it.


You, the able-minded dominant group, are being naive and petulant.

You are not upholding secular values.

You are killing us.


Guest Post: The Stigma of Mental Illness and Religiosity: A Dual Insult