Religious Trauma Syndrome

The UK organisation for Cognitive Therapy recently published a series of articles in their in house journal - CBT Today. The topic was 'religious trauma syndrome', which is basically when people try to leave a sect or very fundamentalist church and experience severe mental distress as a result. Sometimes this is from people in the organisation they are trying to leave, sometimes the person experiences this inwardly as they feel very bad about what they are doing.
The articles they published can be found here:
As you read these I think you will see that this is a very serious and sad problem and something that undoubtedly grieves Jesus and that he would wish his church not to do. However, because these articles are written from an American perspective, it can read as though most evangelical churches in the UK fall into this category. The word 'fundamentalist' means different things each side of the Atlantic.

I wrote a response to these articles which was published by the paper journal alongside the second article, but does not appear on their website. I have therefore reproduced the text below. I wrote it jointly with Greta Randle, Chief Executive of the Association of Christian Counsellors, and Gillie Jenkins, an expert in cult religions and pathological spirituality. Among other things we were surprised by the number of column inches over three editions given to this relatively niche topic and presented in [our view] quite a biased, antagonistic and pro-athiest way.

Please make up your own minds.

Dear Editor,

We read with interest your article on Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS; CBT Today, May 2011, p16). Whilst it was clear that Dr Winell has a lot of experience in this area and has a valid contribution to make in respect to many who have left abusive spiritual and religious situations, we felt it was unbalanced.  This may be because the language she uses reflects cultural differences between UK and USA which in turn may also affect the accuracy of the piece. We thought that your readers would benefit from the points below:

1.    The article describes RTS arising from ‘fundamentalist’ backgrounds but does not expand on what this means. In the UK, the word is more often associated with terrorism or extreme authoritarian groups (be they religious or otherwise). Other emotive words are commonplace. Phrases such as “mind control and emotional abuse is actually the norm for many large, authoritarian, mainline religious groups”. Whilst true of some religious groups (and cults), these statements do not acknowledge the continuum of abuse and may be offensive to many UK Christians.
2.    Similar specialist work is underway in the UK for people who have been spiritually abused and abused in cults –  A charity has been set up - Encourage Survivors of Cults and Abuse, no.1104694. - in order to raise funds to subsidise specialist psycho-education and therapy with Approved Service Providers who are trained to work with spiritual (including religious) and cultic abuse.
3.    The article does not make any reference to the well-known benefits to mental health of religious activity, recently summarised in a comprehensive book from the Royal College of Psychiatrists Spirituality Special Interest Group (Cook, Powell and Sims, 2009), which incidentally contains a comprehensive chapter on pathological spirituality. CBT as a profession has begun to engage with this, which is also not mentioned (Elders, 2008; Waller, 2010).
4.    The church in the UK also offers a huge amount of therapy. There are 2000 Christian Counsellors who are part of the Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC) in the UK, and others who do not belong to ACC but who are in other organisations BACP and BABCP for example.  Many Christians are trained in CBT to various levels.  ACC is a professional body who support Christians in both core counselling training and Continuous Professional Development (CPD).  There is also an accreditation system with criteria very similar to other professional bodies.  They encourage high standards and professionalism and are active within many UK churches. Whilst there are some religions in UK that are anti-psychology, many in the UK are nowhere near as anti-psychology as the article portrays.
5.    The one reference used to support these claims is from an American Epidemiological study. Traditional denominations in the UK are actually stable, with some parts of the church growing (Christian Research, 2011).


Dr Rob Waller, Consultant Psychiatrist (BABCP Member)
Greta Randle, Chief Executive of the Association of Christian Counsellors
Gillie Jenkinson, MA, UKCP Accredited Psychotherapist,  Coordinator of EnCourage Survivors of Cults and Abuse and Director of Hope Valley Counselling Limited


Christian Research (2011) Religious Trends. (accessed 8th June 2011)
Cook CCH, Powell A, Sims ACP (2009) Spirituality and Psychiatry. RCPsych Publications, London
Elders A (2008). Is therapy paying enough attention to spirituality? CBT Today, December 2008.
Waller R, Trepka C, Collerton D, Hawkins J (2010) The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 3, 95–106

Rob Waller, 03/01/2012
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