Podcast: Religion’s Role in Mental Illness Treatment
Does religion help or harm people with severe mental illness? In today’s Not Crazy podcast, Gabe and Lisa welcome Rachel Star Wither, host of the Inside Schizophrenia podcast, to discuss religion’s role (or lack thereof) in treating those struggling with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Rachel relates her personal experiences of mixing religion with her illness and shares how she currently manages to believe in God while keeping her faith “separate” from her symptoms.
Tune in for a deep discussion on religion and severe mental illness, including Rachel’s 3-day exorcism experience at age 17.
(Transcript Available Below)
Subscribe to Our Show!
And Please Remember to Rate & Review Us!
Guest Information for ‘Rachel Star Wither- Religion Mental Illness’ Podcast Episode
Rachel Star Withers is the host of the Inside Schizophrenia podcast, and a mental health advocate who lives with schizophrenia. She creates comedic and mental health videos and has appeared in numerous TV shows.
About The Not Crazy Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from Gabe Howard. To learn more, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Lisa is the producer of the Psych Central podcast, Not Crazy. She is the recipient of The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Above and Beyond” award, has worked extensively with the Ohio Peer Supporter Certification program, and is a workplace suicide prevention trainer. Lisa has battled depression her entire life and has worked alongside Gabe in mental health advocacy for over a decade. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband; enjoys international travel; and orders 12 pairs of shoes online, picks the best one, and sends the other 11 back.
Computer Generated Transcript for “Rachel Star Wither- Religion Mental Illness” Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Lisa: You’re listening to Not Crazy, a psych central podcast hosted by my ex-husband, who has bipolar disorder. Together, we created the mental health podcast for people who hate mental health podcasts.
Gabe: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this episode of the Not Crazy podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and I am here with my co-host, Lisa. Lisa, welcome to the show.
Lisa: Thanks, Gabe. So today’s quote is a delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, and held by many is a religion. And that is actually a super common saying. So we’re not going to really have an attribution.
Gabe: Do you mean there isn’t one or you just don’t want to give the person’s name?
Lisa: I could not find where it comes from originally. Comedians have said this, posters say this. It doesn’t seem to be something I can pinpoint down to one specific person.
Gabe: Well, we are very thorough in our research department, which consists of only Lisa.
Lisa: And Google, Lisa and Google.
Gabe: It’s Lisa using Google, so you still get all the credit. So we’re going to be discussing religion in this episode and no doubt alienate 90% of our audience. This is a great choice for a new podcast. Like remember all of those records that we hit last week? Well, those are gone now.
Lisa: Well, but you never know. The 10% that we keep, those are going to be the best ones. So those of you who are not already alienated, you’re my favorite.
Gabe: There are some people who just they don’t want to hear the topic of religion. You either agree with them and you’re good, because if you disagree with them, you’re bad. Now, our show is designed to bring in all sorts of points of views, all sorts of topics. So we’re not trying to alienate or offend anybody. So so please put on your big boy pants and take a listen. I promise it will be worth the journey. Now, Lisa and I, we are not very religious people, which is why we have a guest coming up in a few minutes who defines as a person who is religious. And because we did want to be fair. We didn’t want an hour of Gabe and Lisa talking about how religion wasn’t important to us. But everywhere we go, spirituality, religion, it comes up as one of the pillars of recovery. And this strikes people like Gabe and Lisa as odd. But it comes up so often it must not be.
Lisa: Well, it shouldn’t strike us as odd, though, because religion is quite common in our society. It permeates almost everything around us. So it’s really not surprising that it’s in the recovery community, that is involved in mental illness and mental health. It comes up for everything.
Gabe: The concept of a higher power is probably the most well-known place where religion is in like addiction recovery.
Lisa: Twelve steps.
Gabe: Right. That’s the 12 step group, AA is the most popular. But there’s also like Emotions Anonymous and then there’s support groups, classes. So this higher power is everywhere. And I’m surprised I personally have never in my entire life attended or led a support group that in one of the rules or in one of the pillars or in one of the agreements or in one of the steps did not involve religion. So clearly it is on everybody’s minds. And I want to talk about what to do, of course, if you don’t identify that way. If it’s one of the twelve steps, does this mean that you can’t make it to the end? It does kind of get messy. Because now let’s say that you do acknowledge a higher power. I’ve heard many a story of people arguing over what that higher power looks like. Well, we both believe in a higher power, but your higher power is wrong.
Lisa: Well, especially in the U.S., the 12 step model really dominates all things mental health, mental illness, recovery, addiction. I’ve even been to groups or to therapy programs that are not about addiction. I personally never struggled with addiction. And they still say we use a 12 step model. That was designed for addiction recovery, so how is that going to help me with my depression?
Gabe: All right, Lisa, I think that we’ve established that religion in America is prominent. Before we get to our very cool guest, a little background from us. I graduated from a Catholic high school. I was raised Catholic. My father is Protestant. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover. And while I don’t consider myself to be a religious person, my entire family is and works on me weekly to find the church again. So I really feel like I have a good understanding of religion in America. Lisa, I know you’re also non-religious, but what is your background? Do you have any?
Lisa: I was raised with religion. My family went to church every Sunday. I stopped attending when I was in college, but I have read the Bible and taken a lot of theology classes. And I don’t consider myself to be a Christian, but I do have a lot of background and knowledge about the religion.
Gabe: Now, Rachel Star Withers is the host of the podcast Inside Schizophrenia. She’s a person living with schizophrenia. Rachel is a religious person, so we’re probably going to disagree. Rachel, are you cool with that?
Rachel: I absolutely am.
Gabe: I love it when I invite people on the show and in the little email, I’m like, look, we’ve selected you because we don’t agree with much of what you’ve done or said. And that’s why we want to make sure that your viewpoint is acknowledged. A lot of people think it’s a trap. Do you think it’s a trap, Rachel?
Rachel: Yeah, I assumed that’s why I was on the show.
Lisa: That is not boding well for your relationship with Rachel, Gabe.
Gabe: Do you think that we are part of the gotcha podcast media?
Lisa: Is that a thing?
Lisa: I do. If that is a thing, I want to be part of that. Make that a thing.
Gabe: Rachel, we have established that Gabe and Lisa are not so religious. Can you talk about your religious background and your general feelings and just your personal belief system?
Rachel: Well, I grew up in the south, in the Bible Belt, so that’s like a church on every corner. Very, very conservative type Christianity. And if you’re not even, like, familiar with the South and everything, you have different denominations and some denominations are looked down upon. A lot of the people around here wouldn’t even consider Catholicism Christianity. They wouldn’t consider Pentecostal Christianity. It is like, no, your either like Baptist, Southern Baptist. I mean, you can get a little crazy and be nondenominational, but that just means Baptist. Like legit, that’s what that means.
Gabe: Are you a Christian? Are you Baptist? What is Rachel Star Withers’ religious affiliation?
Rachel: I pretty much always say that I’m Christian and that I believe what Jesus said were the two main commandments. And in the Bible, one of the disciples comes up to Jesus and was like, Yo, Jesus. Of the ten. What are the main two? You know, like, if I just gotta stick to two of them, what are the main two of these ten? If we’re going to really simplify this, Jesus. And Jesus said love God, love people. That it all could be summed up. And I believe that is the overall message is love something or care about something bigger than yourself and then care about people. Another great way of saying this is don’t be a dick.
Lisa: I am not familiar with the Bible verse where Jesus said, well, the most important thing is to not be a dick.
Rachel: Yes, it’s in there.
Lisa: I will Google that and find the verse.
Rachel: It’s reworded.
Lisa: You’re paraphrasing?
Rachel: I like to use King James, old school. So it’s like thou shalt not be a dick-eth.
Gabe: Rachel, one of the things that is kind of striking me is on one hand, you’re being very cavalier, you know, but on the other hand, I know that you are very religious and you are also a solid studier of theology. One of the reasons that we picked you is because we feel that you’re very reasonable. You’re not too far one way or the other. We also picked you because you’re cool as hell. But
Lisa: And available.
Gabe: And available
Rachel: Right. Yeah, I mean.
Gabe: That’s very helpful.
Lisa: You currently define as Christian, but you’re not picking a specific denomination. Are you currently a churchgoer?
Rachel: Growing up, my family actually started the church we went to and it was like my great grandmother started the church.
Lisa: Oh, wow.
Rachel: Yeah. And which is a big deal, like my grandmother, she taught in the church. Very, very religious background. And it was Southern Baptist, which is pretty much known to be like the strictest. I was on the puppet team and like we had to be careful with the puppets, that they didn’t move too much because that would look like they were dancing, and dancing was forbidden. Even puppet dancing.
Rachel: Like literally, we couldn’t have the puppets sway too much because dancing is not allowed.
Gabe: Rachel, I don’t mean to try to nail you down, but just in the interest of the conversation, in the debate and to know where everybody stands, if you were pressed to check a box, to define yourself as required by the Not Crazy Podcast debating rules.
Lisa: Or the U.S. Census.
Gabe: What would you pick?
Rachel: Christianity, Christian.
Gabe: And do you go to church on Sundays?
Rachel: I do not.
Gabe: Can you still be very religious and not go to church on Sunday? In your opinion?
Rachel: Absolutely. I am in South Carolina. A lot of the churches around here, especially in the current political environment, have become incredibly political. Which I do not agree with. So I don’t currently go to any church. I study a lot. I still read my Bible very regularly. I actually take a lot of online biblical classes because I love the history and all that kind of stuff.
Gabe: I think it’s interesting that you brought up that church is playing a role where you don’t feel that they belong, and the example that you used was politics. Segue over to mental illness, do you feel that religion has a role in recovery from mental illness? And if so, what is it?
Rachel: I do think it plays a role. I don’t think that it should play a role in the beginning, and I don’t think it should play a large overall role.
Gabe: Now, explain what you mean, “in the beginning.” Like, should religion diagnose you?
Rachel: What I always tell people is that’s great that you believe in whatever religion, pick one, I don’t care. But if someone is having psychosis, you don’t need to be taking them to church every week. Because it’s just going to fuel that psychotic-ness of not understanding reality, versus fantasy. And that was a lot of the problems what happened with me, I was starting to have schizophrenia, and instead of getting real help, I had a lot of church people being like, well, no, that’s Satan. Well, no, oh, that hallucination that’s Satan manifesting. And so they weren’t helping me at all. They were telling me, don’t get medication and let’s pray over it. And everything you’re seeing is real. And so I was very untreated for many years because, yeah, they made life much more harder for me to get real help.
Lisa: What age were you when this was going on?
Rachel: My late teens, early 20s, was when things really got bad. But I grew up and when I was little, I was told the same thing. It just, I kind of thought everyone had demons and stuff. If you go to church every Sunday. Well, if you go to church three times a week, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and all you hear about is angels and demons. And then if you’re hallucinating like me, that’s like, well, yeah, obviously I’m seeing the angels and demons we all keep talking about.
Gabe: See, now for my money, that is why I believe that religion can be extraordinarily dangerous, because, after all, you’re right that there’s a lot of imagery of Satan doing things. And I’ve talked to many, many people that say that they did not go to a doctor and they did not get help because they thought that they were just being punished for their sins, that this was Satan’s involvement and what they needed was more church. This is why I think that religion and spirituality should have zero part in recovery from mental illness. And I want to be clear here. I’m talking about severe and persistent mental illness. I understand that the role of spirituality in mental health issues, you know, anxiety and the grief process, etc. I’m talking bipolar disorder, major depression, hearing things in your head. What do you say about that?
Rachel: And I agree with what you’re saying. The other side of that coin, which I think is far more dangerous, isn’t so much that you’re being punished by Satan, it’s that you’re being called on by God. People who are being punished, I feel bad. I’m not going to lash out. And we have so many issues, and if you look around our current political climate and things, it’s more so the thought of, oh, we’re chosen. I have to do this. And that’s where it gets dangerous. And that’s kind of like what was happening with me, was it was more so like, OK, God’s choosing you to see a realm that you shouldn’t see. You’ve been given special powers and you have now a requirement. It’s not so much I feel bad. It’s I’m supposed to go and do this thing. And that’s where I think the dangerous part is, especially when we’re talking about like schizophrenia.
Lisa: You were expressing to people around you, I’m seeing these things, I’m having these visions, I’m hearing these voices. And they’re responding to you, Oh, well, that’s God or that’s a demon talking to you. Either way. And that made sense to you, because after all, you’ve grown up with hearing about this all the time, every week. Why wouldn’t you believe that was sensible and normal? At what point did you start to think, huh? I don’t know, there’s something off about this? Or did you ever?
Rachel: I’m going to say I don’t really think I ever, I never 100% believed, like other people telling me that God was constantly trying to test me. That’s just a lot of testing. I hallucinate like 90% of the time. It’s like we’ve got, you know, Jesus, chill, man. So I feel that goes to where some religious people, if you don’t understand mental health, and you have someone with a very severe mental health problem coming to you and you’re a counselor, you’re a leader or whatever. It gets really dangerous because you can’t give good advice. You’re giving very dangerous advice. And I was 17 at the time and I got a lot of very dangerous advice. Like, Yeah. Oh, well, that’s Satan. You’re full of Satan. You have to like now not eat for the next week because you have to get the Satan out of you. And apparently Satan loves food. He’s a fatty. So that, that’ll work.
Lisa: Wow, that is so horrifying.
Gabe: And you followed this advice, and if I understand correctly, you followed this advice straight to an exorcist.
Rachel: They told me I had demons in me. And they said, we’re going to do an exorcism. Well, I didn’t seek it out. I was at a Christian school at the time, a college. So I was living there. And, yeah, they were like, no, no, we got this.
Lisa: And how did your family respond to that?
Rachel: They, I don’t think they knew anything about it. Or if they did it, they didn’t realize what level we were at.
Gabe: You’re kind of burying the lead here, you went through an exorcism.
Rachel: Yes, I did. I did.
Gabe: Just. You’re just talking about it like I went through an exorcism,
Rachel: I did. Yeah.
Gabe: Like it was just like, you know, I tried that new restaurant and I didn’t like it, so I moved on. No, there’s a lot of trauma that’s involved in all of this. What was that like? Because you believed that, you have to believe in order to go through an exorcism. Just to be clear, you now have to believe that you are possessed by Satan and that’s why you need this. What was this like both as a human and of course, how did it impact your symptoms of schizophrenia? Because you believe this?
Rachel: Unfortunately, it was not like the movies. My head didn’t spin around, I didn’t like spew out a black blood or anything, so it would not make a very good movie, is what I have to say. It lasted three days with three different women.
Rachel: One of which was like nine months pregnant at the time. So when I look back, that’s my thing. It’s like I didn’t pay for this. They volunteered. It was like, what are you getting out of this? You’re very pregnant, lady. But she led it. And it was three days of no eating, no drinking, them laying hands and praying. And me at age 17, having to confess every sin. I was like the best little Christian girl in the world. So it isn’t like I had all this wonderful sex parties and orgies to talk about. It was like I had to confess that I watched the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer once. That’s the intensity of the sins I’m having to confess for three days.
Lisa: So your level sin with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer was so great that it made sense to the people around you. Demons are obviously possessing this girl because clearly that’s so much sin. So?
Rachel: Oh, yeah. Like, what the hell?
Lisa: It doesn’t sound like something that’s real, right?
Rachel: It doesn’t.
Lisa: That people in modern society would actually consider this a reasonable idea, a reasonable thing to do, especially for a child.
Rachel: And something you have to understand, it wasn’t even a commonplace thing. To be in like a normal church and them say, whoa, you need an exorcism. It would be pretty bad. That means you’ve already failed because you let Satan in. The fact that Satan was able to even do that. So the whole thing was very shameful. Everybody freaking knew, because they freaking told every freaking body because you’ve got to watch out for the demon possessed one.
Lisa: Wow. Whoa.
Rachel: I know. And then just real life I never wanted to talk about. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t want my family to know. I didn’t want any friends to know what had happened. I didn’t talk about it for about 10 years. And ironically, I then make this video about it, you know, thinking no one has ever been through what I went through. This is so ridiculous. But, you know, I’m gonna make a video because it is a weird thing. And so many people have reached out to me who’ve went through the exact same thing. The youngest being four years old.
Rachel: The person saying that they’d had them since they were age four.
Lisa: I feel sick.
Gabe: Was this the first treatment that you ever received for schizophrenia?
Rachel: So at the school, apparently, the guy I was seeing was a real doctor because he subscribed in an anti-depressant and I was on it for like a few months and it didn’t work.
Gabe: So you did see a doctor.
Rachel: On campus, the campus doctor, yes.
Gabe: Right. You were prescribed something that didn’t work. And so this was the second treatment for schizophrenia that you received. You are a religious person and now you’re getting all of these e-mails for people that are describing that they’re getting exorcisms and other religious ceremonies as treatment. How did that make you feel? Because for me, just to be blunt, it makes me angry at religion. This is why I do not participate. But you very much still love religion, even though, frankly, what you’re describing is horrendous.
Rachel: Yes. You have to understand, if you are religious or you have that kind of background, the very first person you’re going to go to for help is a religious leader. Whether you’re talking about your Sunday school teacher to a bigger churches actually have counseling centers. They have counselors that are part of your church. It was pretty normal growing up that we would, you know, schedule a meeting with the youth pastor or the assistant pastor of the church if you were having like a problem in your marriage, with your kids, at school. So, like, that’s who you would go to. And that’s why this, you know, unfortunately, is a more common than not thing where they’ll bring up, OK, well, let’s pray over you. Let’s have you do this kind of religious thing and you don’t go see, like, a real doctor or, I don’t say a real counselor because, yes, you can be whatever. But you get the idea. You’re more likely to have religious help than a normal doctor or psychiatrist’s help first.
Gabe: We all seem to agree, from all our different walks of life and belief systems, that this is not the role of religion in recovery and that religion should not be doing this as this is bad. That the whole Christian counselor thing, etc. They’re not trained. They should refer you to real doctors. At this point, there’s just no conflict. We all agree. We all should hug. But we completely disagree. I know that we do. Where do you think the role of religion belongs? Again, Lisa and I have established in the beginning, we think it belongs nowhere. Where does Rachel Star Withers believe that religion is helpful in recovery?
Rachel: I feel that once you’re on that road, when you have a solid grasp of what’s real, what’s not, for me it’s very helpful. I pray every night. I pray multiple times a day. It’s not always nice prayers. Gabe likes to joke that I don’t curse. I curse a lot in my head and a lot of the time I am talking to my concept of God. For me, it helps to kind of be like, okay, what’s happening to me? Why is this happening? And being able to talk to someone who knows where the world’s going, kind of helps me deal with where I’m at right now. I don’t feel like I’m talking to myself. I feel like I am talking to God or cursing at God, trying to understand what’s happening to me.
Gabe: So you feel that that prayer is acceptable as long as you’re still seeking medical treatment?
Rachel: Yes. At what point God starts talking back in a booming voice? Might be a red flag.
Lisa: But how do you possibly differentiate that? Because if you believe that God is listening, why is it so unreasonable to think that he’s talking back?
Rachel: That’s where it gets a little blurry, and that’s why you have to kind of keep religion separated in the very beginning where you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. I’ve had the opposite problem where I feel that God doesn’t talk to me and it feels like he’s like talking to everyone else. When I was growing up and still, people always talk about like feeling God and stuff and I’m like, I’ve never felt that. So I always felt like there was something wrong with me. And I honestly believe 100% that it is my schizophrenia. I don’t really feel happiness. Just I’m never happy. And I think because it’s like chemical things in your brain. And I do think there’s like a chemical thing that some people, when they worship God or whatever, they’ll be like, I can feel God, I feel close to him. And I think it’s a chemical correct balance. So I have the wrong balance. So that’s why I’m not able to experience it.
Rachel: I yeah. I mean, I do believe people feel God and things like that. And I believe I do hear things that sometimes I’m not 100% sure if that’s my hallucinations or not. And I’ve just learned not to react either way.
Lisa: So you feel that you are lacking this feeling of God that other people have because your schizophrenia doesn’t allow you to have it?
Lisa: Why couldn’t it be the other direction? That you don’t have this because it’s not there?
Rachel: I know from like other people in my life, over and over, they’ll be like, wow, I just feel so close to God. I just feel this emotional warmth. And the way they describe it to me is what I think of like happiness and things that I also I don’t experience. So that’s one thing is I think there are ways to connect. You know, your body reacts to different things. And I do think people, they’re reacting to something. But I think that people with depression, with schizophrenia, with bipolar, who don’t experience the world like normal people. I think that for you to have faith, it’s a lot more intense because you don’t get the happy feelings. You don’t get like the warm fuzzies, but you’re still looking for guidance and hope and you still need to kind of try and figure out the world.
Lisa: This experience that you had when you were 17 is such a betrayal and it’s so awful. You continue to identify as a believer. But how are you able to not just feel so betrayed that you would be done with this?
Rachel: Well, I don’t believe in the people. I don’t believe in the people. I don’t believe in what they did. It’s like that’s a complete disconnect from what I think God is. What they did was not religion. They shouldn’t have done that.
Lisa: Well, but obviously anyone could say that, right?
Rachel: Correct. Yeah.
Lisa: They could say the reverse about you. They’re the real religion. They’re the true Christians, not you. If the same logic can justify both people having completely opposite beliefs, how are you able to maintain faith in that logic?
Rachel: I feel that there’s so much stuff that’s happened in my own life. It just doesn’t seem random. And if you know a lot about me, you know, OK. Rachel has schizophrenia. She got a flesh eating bacteria. Like, there’s so many ridiculously over-the-top things in my life that I really feel, I’m like, f-you God. Like, what the hell? I’m like, I was out helping people and I got a flesh eating bacteria. It’s not like I was drinking and going wild with my sex parties. And you’re gonna get a flesh eating bacteria in your face. So and it’s like I go through things that I’m like I just feel that that’s totally God. So, religion is not like a warm, fuzzy thing for me. Trying to understand, my hallucinations have never been nice. They’ve always been very disturbing. I don’t want that to be random. I like at least being able to talk and be like, God, I can’t take this tonight. Like, I’ve had nights where I just like I feel like I prayed myself to sleep crying because I couldn’t make the horrible things go away. It helps me to believe that there is something there. That the world isn’t all darkness.
Lisa: That is a common atheist argument. That this is the proof that God doesn’t exist because all this bad stuff happens. But you’re seeing it as it’s actually almost a proof that he does exist. Because?
Rachel: Because then it’s all darkness. That’s the most depressing thing in the world to me, is that it’s just darkness then. I don’t want to live in a world where it’s just horribleness. I have to believe that there is good and people can choose to be good. And there is like something that wants us to be good and be happy and pushing us towards being good. And that’s how for me, I know when religion is good or bad is when people do bad things. When you are hurting others, I don’t care what your religious book says. No, no. Then you are like everything else. You are adding to the darkness. And I don’t, I can’t live in a world with the thought of everything is just bad or has the potential to be bad. There is nothing pushing towards good.
Gabe: So it’s interesting that you see religion as pushing toward good. And the reason that I bring that up is because mental illness pushes toward the negative. Is it possible that all of this is just this nebulous concept? It’s all very random and there’s nothing pushing towards good. There’s nothing pushing toward bad. And everything just sort of happens. It just happens. And there’s nothing. It sounds like you’re saying that you have this desire for there to be order. And some people would argue that this desire to have things be planned and ordered and un-random is a symptom of schizophrenia because schizophrenia and mental illness and psychosis is just so incredibly random. What do you have to say to that? Because it almost sounds like you’re saying no, no, no, no, no. There is a plan for me that includes schizophrenia, but not everybody believes that. Including the way that we treat schizophrenia. It’s kind of a mess, right?
Rachel: And that goes back to kind of what causes mental illnesses and stuff. I’m of belief, because I had it since I was a little kid, that I was born with it. My parents didn’t do anything. My mom wasn’t like drinking when I was a baby, you know. There’s no reason for me to have schizophrenia except that I just do. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s just like, I don’t know, like asthma. It’s not like you’re bad because you have asthma. But I do think it was something I was born with. And while I don’t, wouldn’t say that it’s oh, because I have this God made like a special plan for my life to go and save the exorcists or whatever. So it helps me, though, to, like, feel that, yeah, not everything is bad. That schizophrenia isn’t bad. That just all this bad stuff is going to happen to me and hurt and pain. That there is something else out there that I can push towards.
Gabe: It’s interesting to me because we both have a severe and persistent mental illness. We’ve both had psychosis. And as you know, mental illnesses has caused me great pain and suffering, just like you. And I, I’m not playing the suffering Olympics. I’m just pointing that out because we both went through very similar experiences. And what I came through the other side is this has to be random and there can’t be somebody that could have saved me and chose not to because that’s just too much to bear. So therefore, it’s just random and bad luck. And you came through it on the other side that said, well, I can’t just have this be random and bad luck because that’s too much to bear. There must be somebody up there deciding it. And for a lot of people watching us are just like, you know, these are a couple of mentally ill people that their brains don’t work right. I mean, frankly, they don’t work right. That’s why we’re seeking medical treatment. Are we qualified to really discuss this at all? Because after all, we started this show by saying, hey, our brains are broken. And I don’t know that we’re ever going to get to a clear answer because after all, there’s demons under my bed and there’s colors following you around. What do we do with all of that? Because if we didn’t have mental illness, this debate would sound very similar, just with different examples.
Rachel: Right now, we’re probably the most legitimate people to talk about religion is because we start with, hey, our brains are broken.
Rachel: I feel like we’re like more legit because we have that. We can be like, look, we might not be interpreting everything correctly, but this is what I think.
Gabe: You feel that being open to the idea that you’re wrong is a very powerful thing and we seem to strangely agree on this, which is weird because I don’t think that we interpret the world the same at all. But you seem to be open to the idea that you could be wrong. That’s very unusual in religious circles.
Rachel: Probably, yes.
Gabe: We’ll be right back after these messages.
Announcer: Interested in learning about psychology and mental health from experts in the field? Give a listen to the Psych Central Podcast, hosted by Gabe Howard. Visit PsychCentral.com/Show or subscribe to The Psych Central Podcast on your favorite podcast player.
Announcer: This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp.com. Secure, convenient, and affordable online counseling. Our counselors are licensed, accredited professionals. Anything you share is confidential. Schedule secure video or phone sessions, plus chat and text with your therapist whenever you feel it’s needed. A month of online therapy often costs less than a single traditional face to face session. Go to BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral and experience seven days of free therapy to see if online counseling is right for you. BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral.
Gabe: We’re back discussing the role of religion in mental illness recovery with Inside Schizophrenia Podcast host Rachel Star Withers.
Lisa: So at this point, you feel that your faith has been a help to you in recovery and maintaining your life with mental illness, you know, living well. But I would say that for many people, it’s not a help. It’s a huge detriment. And that would be the reason why I would get rid of it completely. But you think it’s worth it? You think the potential downsides are worth the upsides that you have received.
Rachel: For me, absolutely. It’s one of the only reasons I’m still here. Every night, I’m cursing towards God sometimes because I’m wanting to kill myself and me cursing towards him throughout the entire night is the only way I made it to the morning. And that at least that anger, of that spite sometimes will be what kept me going was that no, I’m not just gonna give up. No. It’s helped me that, like, feel there is something there, even if I’m very angry and saying f-you, I’m going to do this anyway.
Lisa: Again, you see and hear things that are not real. So you don’t have any justification for this other stuff, but we’re good on this one. So how have you been able to balance that? And how have your treatment providers been able to work that in?
Rachel: For me, it’s two completely different things. If I were to start thinking God was talking to me, my knee jerk reaction is no, Rachel, that is absolutely a hallucination. And if I get obsessed with something, that’s when I bring it into, like my counseling. For the most part, and I’m not saying this is the correct or incorrect thing to do, I think, I don’t bring it anything up with religion when it comes to me going to the psychiatrist and talking about medication. I don’t say, well, I don’t need more medication because me and God had this amazing time at the park yesterday.
Lisa: How would you like to see mental illness treatment and religion separated? Or do you think there is a way that they could be combined?
Rachel: I don’t think they should be combined. And I’m not referring to depression because I know obviously there’s going to be people listening to the podcasts like, no, you don’t understand depression. You just even mentioned a little bit ago about being suicidal. For me, those are such small parts of my mental illness. The schizophrenia, the being confused all the time, the hallucinations, that’s what I’m referring to. That I don’t feel like can be treated in a religious way. I don’t feel like I need to go to a church counselor to talk about trying to understand what’s real and what’s not. Because at the end of the day, or at the end of the session, it’s going to be, well, let’s pray before you go. And now you’ve left that door open for me to get confused again. And it’s so hard for me to know what’s real and fake, I don’t want, I don’t know, any more confusion. So I rather yeah. If I’m dealing with becoming manic, if I’m dealing with hallucinations, with reality confusion, that needs to be one hundred percent separate from normal mental health help.
Gabe: Rachel, I too believe that mental health care, mental illness care, and religion need to be separated. But my reason is obviously different from yours. As a religious person, what would you say to your fellow Christians that are going to disagree with you? Because judging by all of the handbooks I’ve read, the rules, the 12 step programs, people believe that mental illness care, mental health care ,and religion should go completely hand in hand. So what do you have to say to your fellow Christians?
Rachel: I think that’s why you have to understand there’s a big difference between just being sad, being upset over something, and a severe mental illness. You cannot pray away schizophrenia, bipolar. You have something that you need to go to the doctor. Similar to cancer. OK? Well, I remember actually being in church and this man getting up in front of, like, you know, a couple hundred people and saying he was gonna stop his cancer medication because he had the faith God would heal him. And I was in the church like, oh, no. Spoiler alert, what happened two years later? Anyway, it’s the same way. And unfortunately, so many people in the Christian community or even recovery community, drugs, alcohol, they feel that you are experiencing depression, you are experiencing alcoholism, whatever, because of a weakness, and you need God because you are weak. That’s one of the 12 steps. Admit you have no control over it and go to a higher power. That does not work for schizophrenia. That does not work for bipolar. You don’t have bipolar because you are weak. You don’t have schizophrenia because you are weak. You didn’t do anything bad. OK. And I think that’s where the big hole is, is that they’re not considering severe mental illness as being real. They’re still saying it is like a weakness. It’s not a real thing, it’s, you know.
Gabe: It’s interesting what you said there, that the misunderstandings and the stigma and the discrimination towards severe and persistent mental illnesses is possibly not because they’re overinflating the role of religion, but because they’re underestimating the seriousness of severe and persistent mental illness. How do we educate religious leaders to get them to understand that? Look, community is important. And it’s very important. Without my family, I would be nowhere. And you’ve spoken the same way. We need our support. You know, I am so thankful for all of you. Even the folks on this podcast right now, you have all supported me in my dark times. But some of that support has been, Gabe, go to a doctor. Gabe, make that therapy appointment. You know, Gabe, you need help right now. Because you’re all educated. In your opinion, again, as a Christian, Rachel, how do we help religious leaders see that this is beyond their scope? Because I don’t see a lot of religious leaders trying to fill the role of an oncologist. But for some reason, you know, therapy, psychology, psychiatry, they’re like, we got this. And I don’t think they’re trying to be mean. I really don’t.
Rachel: This is going to sound like the complete makes no sense. And that’s kind of like what this whole podcast has been. Religion in so many ways, it doesn’t make sense. Because you’ll see like, well, you have to believe in the unseen. You have to believe that God’s there even though you can’t see him. I’m a huge Bible buff. I love old school translations, the lost books of the Bible. There’s so many loopholes. For every verse, there’s another verse that completely goes against it. And that’s one of my favorite things, is like getting to debate biblical people because you just can’t. It’s just ridiculous. You could go any direction with any argument. Incest? The Bible is for it. Let’s get this on. Lot and his daughters. There’s no, like, right or wrong that you can argue with these things. So, I mean, if you look at it, yeah. Your brain already needs to be scrambled to fully get and be able to understand. And I think to follow any religion, you’ve got to be kind of scrambled. And yet when you’re dealing with mental illness, they’re like, well, that’s something you can’t see. So it’s like they don’t believe in it. They’re able to believe, like in a giant floating spaghetti monster. But they’re not going to.
Lisa: All hail his noodly appendage.
Gabe: Yes, I’m a Pastafarian.
Rachel: Yes, but they’re not willing to believe in mental illness. They’ll be like, no, that’s not a real thing, though, that’s a weakness. That’s, you know, you got a really good imagination or oh, that’s Satan then, it’s not you. It’s something else. The idea that your brain can hallucinate. No, no, no, no. We all have these biases and blind spots in our lives. The thing I always find most surprising is I’ll talk to people and sometimes the ones who are the most atheists are also then the most weird about other things like superstitions and ghosts and aliens. And I’ll be like, what? You just made fun of me for saying a Bible verse, but you’re over here going on about like these magic crystals.
Rachel: What is the difference? I’m slightly offended.
Lisa: That is a thing that bothers me all the time.
Lisa: Either you’re skeptical or you’re not.
Rachel: Right. So I’m not being like, oh, it’s just Christianity, like it’s across everything almost with us. And I’m sure each of us have our own, like, little weird things like that.
Gabe: Let let let’s explore that just a little further, because you are correct. You know, this episode is focusing on the role of religion and mental health care and where religion makes things worse and where religion can potentially make things better. But if we take out the word religion and replace it with CBD oil, essential oils, yoga, aromatherapy,
Gabe: Could have the identical, yeah, crystals. We could literally have the identical conversation. Do you think that sometimes people believe that religion is a solution, again, because of a base misunderstanding about how serious mental illness is? And potentially, I’m hoping there’s some religious leaders out there that maybe think to themselves, well, I don’t believe that CBD oil or aromatherapy or crystals can cure mental illness, but I sure can. And maybe if they apply it that way, they think to themselves, all right, this is medical in nature. I honestly don’t know what point I’m trying to make, which is a theme with this podcast. But as a Christian, it sounds like you have not used Christianity really to fight schizophrenia. A lot of people I know in recovery keep them separate. But I know a lot of people who are literally in harm’s way right now because, quote, their pastors got this, their faith communities got this. My faith will see me through. And in the meantime, there’s not a doctor anywhere. And I worry about those people because you got an exorcism. But finally, made your way to a doctor. So many people get the exorcism and then move on to a second exorcism or then they’re told that they didn’t pray hard enough and therefore they’ve got to. These are the things that strike me. Rachael, push back hard against that.
Rachel: Look at our entire world. We have like thousands of years of this is such a big issue. And if it’s not the religions we currently have, there’ll be a new one out in 100 years. There’ll be some new weird thing we believe in. That’s how humans are. We’re always going to believe in weird crap. And there always are going to be fanatical people who push it to the next level. For my other Christians, my religious people, back to the cancer scenario. If you have cancer, that’s great. You believe in God, that’s great. You believe he’s gonna heal you? Spoiler alert. He might have made medicine as that resource of how to heal you. So you can believe and pray to God and still take your medication to get better. Same thing with schizophrenia. I can believe in God and still also believe, hey, I need to take my own anti-psychotics, because that’s a whole nother level of God talking to me if I don’t. That probably is something very physically wrong with me that has nothing to do with the spirit realms, the ghosts, the aliens.
Gabe: For me personally, I believe that religion is a very personal thing, and as long as you don’t push your religion on me, I won’t push my lack of religion on you. And that’s sort of how I live my life. It’s easier said than done. I’m not saying that I’ve never got into a Facebook fight because I’m only human. And it sounds like that’s where you are as well. And I think that’s a very mature place to be. But I really, as a mental health advocate, I become terrified when people tell me that they are treating severe and persistent mental illness with religion or some variation thereof. Do you feel the same way? Is this like a part where we agree?
Rachel: I mean, yeah, you’re setting yourself up to fail. And I think now you can also use that with anything. If I decide to treat my very severe schizophrenia with just counseling, I’m probably setting myself up to fail because this isn’t just a hey, I need to go and talk about it. I’m still going to become very, very, very sick if I just sit around talking about having schizophrenia. I have to be on medication. I’m on four different antidepressants alone, and I still go to counseling and pray and all this stuff. Does that mean that I don’t believe in God because I have to take four antidepressants? No, it just means that I have an illness that I need to, if I’m going to keep living, I have to do this thing. I have to take this medication.
Gabe: Makes perfect sense to me.
Lisa: Rachel, thank you so much for being here. Do you have any last thoughts that you’d like to share with us?
Rachel: Just if you’re out there and you’re having a hard time and you’ve went through things like exorcism and stuff like that, know that you’re not alone and get help. Because we all definitely need help to get through some of our past traumas. And check out Inside Schizophrenia if you want to hear more Gabe at least.
Gabe: Ah, it’s Gabe and Rachel and it’s a really, really cool podcast. It’s actually hosted by Rachel, I am just the co-host and you can find Inside Schizophrenia on your favorite podcast player or by going to the website, which. Rachel, what’s the Web site?
Gabe: Rachel, thank you so much. You are the bomb.
Lisa: Yeah. Thank you so much. You were great.
Rachel: Thank you, guys.
Lisa: All right, bye-bye.
Gabe: I thought it was great that Rachel stopped by and, Lisa, I get to work with her all the time, Na na na na naa naaa.
Lisa: She’s amazing.
Gabe: Lisa, what are your first impressions?
Lisa: I have trouble understanding how after going through something so horrible as the exorcism, she still finds a place for faith in her recovery. How about you, Gabe? What did you think about what Rachel had to say?
Gabe: One of the things that I think of is support is extraordinarily important in mental illness. Like my recovery is owed to my support system. And if your faith community is extraordinarily supportive and accepting, then, yeah, I love it. But there’s this base assumption that every single faith community is accepting of people with mental illness, and that’s not entirely the case. So there’s a side that we never think about. And if you fall into that side, I want to be very clear that your faith community, your religion, can be a detriment. I suppose the easy answer is, if that is your faith community, you can switch. But we all know that not so easy.
Lisa: Well, and it doesn’t have to just be that your faith community doesn’t support your recovery in mental illness, it could be that they don’t support you either. You know you hear all sorts of horror stories of people who are gay and they’re rejected by their church. And that can cause a lot of damage.
Gabe: I can also see, and this is what I want to get out there, there are congregations and religions that just flat out don’t believe in mental illness. So you and your family may well be willing to see a doctor. But, of course, you’re discouraged. I want to give a shout out to all of the faith leaders, all of the communities that notice something is wrong and support and encourage and help. And I know this from advocacy. Do you know how many churches are involved in advocacy? I visit churches on the regular to provide workshops, etc. So I do have this struggle. I’m really very much in the middle because churches support their communities in great ways. But again, if they can support their communities in great ways, it does mean that they could be a hindrance. I just want to say to anybody that is a hindrance, please, please reconsider. Because with treatment, recovery is very, very likely.
Lisa: There’s just so many variables with the specific person, the specific religion, the community, the faith. So there’s just no clear cut answer on whether or not religion is going to be helpful or harmful when it comes to your recovery.
Gabe: The reality is, is your mileage may vary. Not everything is inherently good. Not everything is inherently bad.
Lisa: Exactly, it’s all about the specifics of the situation. There’s not going to be one answer that works for everyone.
Gabe: One of the things that was curious to me is that she mentioned that when she made this video, she got all of these emails from people who were traumatized by it. And I’m not surprised. I see a lot of abuses like this. And my e-mail is filled with people who are using religion and faith to meet recovery all the time. Now with negative consequences.
Gabe: I should be clear like that. Maybe that’s the thing. Maybe the people who are having good experiences using religion to manage the symptoms of mental illness just aren’t e-mailing me. I do want to be open to that possibility. But the people who are hurt, they’re just so hurt. And whenever I try to get religion to move forward, like, listen, all you’ve got to do is stay out of it. Like, they stay out of cancer treatment. Just stay out of it. Whenever anybody hears a story of somebody saying, I’m quitting my chemotherapy. I’m not going to an oncologist. I’m just praying over cancer. Generally speaking, people are like, that’s not a good idea. But whenever people hear, I am no longer taking the medication, going to therapy, or getting help for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis, I’m just going to pray and fall on my church community. People are like, yeah, yeah. I don’t have anything against religion. I just want them to move over to the same model as cancer. Is that wrong?
Lisa: This is just another outcome or another symptom of the way that people don’t perceive mental illness as being an actual medical problem. It’s a behavior problem. It’s a spiritual problem. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. So when someone says, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna go use religion to pull myself up by my bootstraps. We’re like, oh, yes, that makes sense. But most people don’t think you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps to get rid of cancer. So if you said to them, I’m going to go use religion to do this, well, that doesn’t make sense. You need medicine. So this is just another example of how people do not see mental illness as an actual illness.
Gabe: I think it’s really interesting that when people don’t see mental illnesses as serious or something that needs medical intervention or you can do that, you know, pull yourself up by your bootstraps thing, and then it mixes with a controversial topic like religion or medication or other beliefs. That, it becomes this quagmire of we’re no longer discussing the best way to treat people with mental illness, but we’re bringing in our dislike of discussing emotions or dislike of taking medications or just the way society feels about having a mental illness. And all of a sudden you’re not really discussing the best way to get care anymore are you? You’re now fighting against the thing that you already either liked or disliked when you walked in the door. Do you think religion just falls into that trap? That we’re not actually discussing mental health, we’re just discussing our personal beliefs on religion and we’re just having the wrong discussion entirely?
Lisa: Not necessarily, you always say that the reason people aren’t seeking out medical care for mental illness is because they don’t see it as being serious. And I’m sure that’s part of it, but I don’t think that’s all of it. It’s not so much that they see it as being trivial or not being serious it’s that they don’t understand the base premise of this is a biologically based problem. So it’s not that they think, oh, this is a small thing. No big deal. No. You could easily think that this is a horrible, terrible thing that needs lots and lots of care and lots and lots of resources devoted to it and still not think that it needs these specific type of resources. You could think that, oh, no, the resources it needs are behavioral based or spiritual.
Gabe: So you’re doing everything you can, but because of your base misunderstanding of what’s wrong.
Lisa: Your base understanding of what’s causing the problem in the first place. So you can put tons of energy and resources into solving the problem, but if you don’t understand what caused it to start with, it doesn’t matter how many resources you throw at it because you’re not doing the right things that will work to solve it.
Gabe: This is a grease fire. I really think that’s a great analogy.
Gabe: This is a grease fire. You believe that the fire is real. There’s no debate at the seriousness of the fire that’s in your kitchen.
Lisa: You understand the danger.
Gabe: If you have an understanding of grease fires, you smother, you grab the lid, you put it on the pot, you grab towels, you deprive it of oxygen, it goes out and it’s fine. If you don’t understand it, even though you’re thinking that it’s very serious, you spray it with water. And then, of course, that blows the grease everywhere. The fire gets worse and it’s horrible. Nobody is saying that water is bad. Nobody is saying that the fire isn’t serious. I think that’s the perfect analogy.
Lisa: That is a perfect analogy because it’s not that people don’t think fire is dangerous or that they don’t want it out, it’s just that they don’t understand what it takes to put it out quickly and safely.
Gabe: I sincerely hope that all the people listening to this, no matter what side of the discussion, the debate that you’re on, or most likely somewhere in the middle. And I hope that you’ve listened to the very, very end. I am very flattered with all of our listeners who take the time to write me to tell me that they disagreed with us. But I can tell based on their letters and their e-mails and their comments that they listened all the way to the end. So even though they completely disagreed with us, they still listened and considered our viewpoints. They ultimately considered that we were wrong. I like that. And I want you to know that we have been reading your e-mails. Because our minds have been altered, our minds have been altered during the research of some of these shows. And I think that that is really, really cool. So keep them coming over to, Lisa, what’s our e-mail address?
Gabe: All right, everybody, I hope you had fun this week. Listen up, here’s what I need you to do. If you like the podcast, wherever you downloaded it, please subscribe. Use your words and rate us. Share us on social media, email us to your friends. Tell your mom about us. We do crazy well in the mom demographic. And did you know that after the credits there is always an outtake? Basically where Gabe and Lisa either made a mistake, said something funny, or the whole thing just devolved into a giant fight. We hope that you will check it out.
Lisa: And we’ll see you next Tuesday.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to the Not Crazy Podcast from Psych Central. For free mental health resources and online support groups, visit PsychCentral.com. Not Crazy’s official website is PsychCentral.com/NotCrazy. To work with Gabe, go to gabehoward.com. Want to see Gabe and me in person? Not Crazy travels well. Have us record an episode live at your next event. E-mail [email protected] for details.