In this second article, we will look at how spiritual abuse can contribute toward suicidal ideation by increasing risk factors and reducing protective factors.
Among the foremost damaging features of spiritual abuse is how it tears down a person’s self-esteem. Bad theology asserts that the individual is damaged. Some branches of Christianity focus on the idea of original sin, and repeatedly remind their members that their heart is wicked and cannot be trusted. Their focus causes them to promote strict rules about acceptable behavior. The effect is an erosion of healthy development and self-acceptance. Members may become depressed while acting on the surface as if everything is wonderful.
Bad theology also erodes members’ ability to seek professional help for mental disorders. In spiritual abuse, there is often a focus on spiritual warfare, demons, and evil. Some go so far as to call mental illness, demonic possession or a lack of faith. Other groups belittle mental health professionals, saying that they will mislead you and draw you away from God. These programmed fears make it difficult to seek help.
A third way spiritual abuse contributes to suicidal thinking is their characterization of non-believers or people outside of the fold. If a person changes their minds, or is cast out of community, they may continue to believe what the group has said about people who leave. They are physically out, but mentally in. They may feel that even God cannot love them. They may feel all is lost, that life is hopeless, and that no chance of restoration is possible. (Not that the person should consider returning to an abusive group or leader.) They have been programmed to feel this way.
Beyond toxic teachings, spiritual abuse may cause the loss of routine, friendships, and sense of purpose. Spiritual abuse or waking up from toxic teachings is disorienting. Cults and high control groups demand all of your time and focus. The survivor often must rebuild the foundation of his or her life, including how time is spent, finding new associates, and meaningful things to do. This loneliness is complicated when one’s parents, spouse, or children, remain loyal to the abusive group and its teachings. Feeling despair is common. The fracturing of one’s worldview can lead to alcohol or drug abuse. Some call this a slow death by despair.
Extreme forms of spiritual abuse hinder a person’s development. Individuals surrender all to the philosophy. For those born into the system, they may have not had opportunity to develop problem solving skills. Some groups teach members to pray about everything, but if spiritual abuse has lead to loss of faith, the person is left with nothing to help them cope. They may have had all their decisions made for them, and is frightening to be the one in charge, when their history has stunted them developmentally. It can feel overwhelming to lack support and be thrown into a world that one does not understand, and that you have been taught to fear.
If you are in this position, it is important to seek support. Ex-believers can help you feel less isolated and confirm that spiritual abuse occurred. They can also help you see that recovery is possible. Sometimes, more is needed than support from other ex-members. If a person is hearing voices or is hallucinating, a professional should access the situation. A medical condition could be an underlying cause. Early intervention is key. If a person is struggling with eating disorders, professional help is needed. If you cannot function to get to work or school, help is needed. There is no shame in seeking help. I am alive because I sought help when I was 23.
If you worried about how to afford therapy, seek a community mental health clinic (sometimes called behavioral health clinics). Most clinics will offer what is called a sliding scale. They slide fees down to zero if you have no income. If you have minimum wage, they will adjust fees to where they are affordable. You can also apply for State assisted health care, and mental health or addiction recovery are usually covered services. The United Way in your local area should have a referral service to help you locate the nearest providers.
The good news is, the toxic teachings can be unlearned. You can reclaim your life, rebuild it, and move forward. Hundreds of thousands of people have recovered. In time you may look back with gratitude, like I do, for all of life’s experiences because they shape you into who you are. You will be amazed at your journey. This is only the beginning. Spiritual abuse is not the last story.
The Suicide Prevention lifeline number is 1 (800) 273-8255.
You may also seek help at an Emergency Room if you feel overwhelmed.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255