Mental Illness Amongst Jehovah's Witnesses
There are many intelligent, well balanced and successful Jehovah's Witnesses and there is no intention in this article to suggest a Witness needs to have any mental or emotional problems to hold to their beliefs. This is an attempt to clarify whether existing studies prove higher levels of mental illness amongst Jehovah's Witnesses and identify reasons why this could be the case.
In Child Custody Decisions and Jehovah's Witness Parenthood, Richard Singelenberg has produced a balanced look at the evidence. He concludes that as yet there are no true scientific studies that can be used legitimately;
"In general, scientific research of socialisation practices in religious movements is still in its infancy. Although specific data from Jehovah's Witnesses are lacking, results from similarly controversial religious movements such as Hare Krishna, the Rajneesh Movement and The Family (the former Children of God) indicate that child-rearing practices in these groups have no adverse effects on the child's general well-being (Lilliston & Shepherd 1994; Palmer & Hardman 1999)."
He shows concern that perceptions about Jehovah's Witnesses may unjustly lead to an unfavourable judgement against them in custody cases:
"Analysis of two court cases focusing on child custody disputes among members of this religious movement indicates that misconceptions about religious tenets, consideration of pseudo-scientific claims and emphasis on the ideological realm rather than individual circumstances may influence judicial decisions. It should be noted, however, that certain statements that have emanated from the umbrella organization of the Jehovah's Witnesses might have contributed to these misinterpretations."
Singelenberg also highlights the variance of beliefs and practices of Witnesses when behind closed doors;
"From my own research, I met Jehovah's Witnesses who do celebrate birthdays, vote for political candidates, sit around Christmas trees (albeit with the closed curtains), have premarital sex, let off fireworks at New Year's Eve and smoke an occasional cigar after a good meal. So, drawing conclusions from the movement's literature (particularly back editions) to evaluate the day-to-day practices of a specific family may render an inaccurate picture of their proper religious involvement (Wah 1997b: 306)."
Singelenberg proceeds to quote Wilson in regard to the sometime unfair perception of people towards sects;
"Because sectarians do not choose what others choose, holds themselves apart in their use of leisure time and ... associate only with each other rather than with non-members, that sects elicit some of the strongest reactions from the general public. The child-centered society is inclined to see prohibitions respecting children's play activities as wilful deprivation. We live in a tolerant society. There is no reason at all why the mother should not espouse the beliefs and practices of Jehovah's Witnesses There is nothing immoral or socially obnoxious in the beliefs and practice of the sect... (Wilson 1990: 37, 38, 51)
Due to the negative perception of a Witness upbringing, two court custody cases discussed by Singelenberg found against the Witness parent. The reasoning is worth consideration and highlights the negative viewpoints inculcated into Witness children.
Case i The Netherlands, 1991
In this custody case the husband left the wife after she became a Jehovah's Witness. The wife initially won custody but later this was overturned and given to the husband.
"Of course, the Board does not render an opinion about the religious conviction of the mother. However, the Board cannot ignore the fact that mother's active involvement in this community will have consequences for the upbringing of the children.
… though mother is able to put herself in the experience of the children, it remains to be seen if she, from her univocal view on the world and on mankind, can give the children enough opportunity to form an opinion of their own and enable them to unfold and develop their talents.
It remains to be seen if [the mother] can give enough room to the children, so they can unfold according to their nature. The fundamental as well as the relational anchorage of the children in the group of Jehovah's Witnesses give reason for some concern, because in case they react against this belief there is a danger they end up in a social vacuum."
Case ii Germany, 1993
In case ii a husband was disfellowshipped and the wife took custody. The Jehovah's Witness wife started to beat the child, one time an eyewitness found the child unconscious. The wife's reason was that he was turning out like the husband and she was frustrated due to the divorce. An expert on 'Cults and World Views' from the Evangelical Lutheran Church was called to provide information about the type of harm that comes from being raised as a Witness;
" The educational target of the Jehovah's Witnesses is subordination by coercion and uncritical acceptance of religious doctrines and teachings, in order to break the free will of the growing child and to mould it into an uncritical and dependent individual.
 It should be made clear that the outside world is a hostile environment, which has harmful effects on children of Jehovah's Witnesses. But more than that, Jehovah's Witnesses should fear a vengeful God and an imminent Armageddon. Unbelievers, including unbelieving children will be victims of a 'bloody liquidation' in that final battle.
When, for example, the child is being cast off from the community, family members are not allowed to have any spiritual contact with the child. The relationship between parents and child will be strictly limited to satisfy the biological needs of the child. The child will be treated as an outcast.
Secondary education is looked upon with suspicion because 'it has been proved that this will lead to a preference of satanic material things' and a gradual withdrawal from the religious sphere."
The court found "that the child, brought up with these views (as explained by the expert on cults), will probably be mentally harmed for the rest of his life." People in general hold concern for Witness children, specifically due to segregation from the world, coercion based on fear of Armageddon and possible shunning, and being dissuaded from critical thinking and individual development.
The Mental Health of Jehovah's Witnesses by John Spencer is widely quoted though the findings are dubious. This found that in the 3 year period from 1971 to and including 1973, 7,546 inpatients were admitted to the West Australian Mental Health Service Psychiatric Hospitals, of which 50 were active Witnesses. This represents a rate of 2.54/1000 for the general population and 4.17/1000 for Jehovah's Witnesses. Particularly high was the rate of Schizophrenics amongst Witnesses.
The following excerpts are summarized quotes from PARADISE POSTPONED...AND POSTPONED: Why Jehovah's Witnesses Have a High Mental Illness Level. Jerry Bergman has researched and written extensively about Jehovah's Witnesses. As a former Witness his findings may be considered biased, however the reasoning he provides merits consideration.
In 1946, Gosta Rylander investigated a sample of conscientious objectors imprisoned in Sweden. About four percent of the eligible Swedish population was judged psychologically "unfit" for military service, and the corresponding figure for Witnesses was 21 percent, or five times greater. This is close to the same ratio later found by John Spencer, whose diagnosis of "psychotic" or "neurotic" was made on the basis of mental hospital admission screening.
The First American Study
In 1949, in the first study on American Witness mental health, M. J. Pescor diagnosed as psychotic over seven percent of his total sample of 177 young males imprisoned due to obeying the Watchtower's prohibition against complying with military regulations. The level of Witness psychosis in his sample was about 17 times higher than that for the population as a whole.
Montague and Other Researchers
Havor Montague (another name Jerry Bergman publishes under) monitored the admissions to state and private mental hospitals and local mental health clinics in Ohio from 1972 to 1976. From this study of 102 cases, he estimated, "The mental illness rate of JWs is approximately 10 to 16 times higher than the rate for the general, nonWitness population... From his intensive interviews with Witness patients and others, Montague concluded that persons who had emotional problems were attracted to the Witnesses, but involvement also caused many of the emotional problems that they suffered. This is evident from the fact that many with problems reported they were far happier after they left.
Many reasons exist for the mental health problems among Witnesses, but research has found the following to be the most important.
Changes in Policy
The Watchtower is in a perpetual state of doctrinal change, often flip-flopping as many as three or four times on a single issue.
The Watchtower Theocracy
Another major cause for disillusionment among Witnesses is that they are taught that their organization is a theocracy, specifically run by God. Those inside the Watchtower organization are the only true servants of God, and all of those outside are evil persons soon to be destroyed at Armageddon. Yet many are aware of the numerous cases of Witnesses who have done horrible things.
Many Witnesses harbor a deep-seated fear - fueled by a long history of doctrinal reversals and prophetic failure - that the Watchtower is a false religious organization. Since this idea has earth-shaking implications for followers of that organization, they refuse to explore their fears, preferring to ration-alize or suppress rather than acknowledge and deal with them. The key to salvation lies not in being saved in the Christian sense or even being good, but being in the Watchtower organization - although they also teach that even this does not guarantee salvation.
MacDonald and Luckett
MacDonald and Luckett, Religious Affiliation and Psychiatric Diagnoses, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1983, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 15-37 produced a study that looked at the relationship between religious groups and psychiatric diagnoses. This studied the type of diagnoses of psychiatric patients. Seven groups were included - No Religious Preference, Non-Mainline Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Other Protestant, Unknown and Sects. Jehovah’s Witnesses were included within sects along with other groups such as Christian Science, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. Sects had a higher level of psychoses, 21% compared to the sample average of 10%.
Multicultural Considerations with Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses
In Multicultural Considerations with Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, Tanya Willson shows Jehovah's Witnesses are identified as a "high-cost" or "high-control" religion.
"Scheitle & Adamczyk (2010) studied the health effects of leaving a religion, and made the distinction between low-cost and high-cost religion, specifically including Jehovah’s Witnesses in the latter category. High-cost religion was defined as “theologically, socially, and culturally exclusive” (p.325). Exiting a high-cost religion involves “strained or severed family relationships, loss of self-identity, social isolation, and the personal stress that accompanies these issues” (p. 327). The authors also point out that due to the unique cultural features of high-cost religious organizations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, many who leave the organization do not join another religious organization, and therefore are less likely to gain the benefits of social support and community from an alternate organization. The study concluded that those who leave high-cost religions such as the Watchtower Organization, are more likely to report poorer overall health than those who stay in the religion (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010)." (p.4)
Willson interviews Dr. Winell, who "has worked with ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as people who have left other high-control religions for over twenty years." (p. 11) Dr. Winell states;
"… because of the severity of the shunning that ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses are subjected to by their families and friends, they are more likely to return to activity in the organization, which is very rare in people leaving other religions. Dr. Winell also emphasized that because of the doctrine of Armageddon occurring soon, many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses will have phobia or PTSD-like symptoms, including nightmares or anxiety attacks, even though they do not intellectually believe in this doctrine anymore, because many were often taught as children to fear Armageddon." (p.12)
Dr. Winell defines the experience as "Religious Trauma Syndrome", as "many people suffer from serious anxiety and depression following leaving a high-control religion." (p.13)
Religiously Divided Families
In 2017, a Judge in the United Kingdom discussed "the risk of emotional damage due to confusing messages" where one member is a Jehovah's Witness and the other is not. In a custody case regarding a six year old boy, the Judge ruled that the Jehovah's Witness father could take the son to Sunday meetings, but not other events such as conventions and preaching activities. The son was also not to be shown "religious based media" such as Watchtower cartoons.
The judge said the boy had watched cartoons called Obey Jehovah, Pay Attention At Meetings and One Man One Woman.
"In 'Obey Jehovah' a child is taught about the sinfulness of having a cartoon character toy with magical powers which the child had to put in a bin," he said.
"While making sense to a child if both parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, such a cartoon would send a very confusing message to a child like [the boy] who has one foot in his mother's world and a wider world (in which magical characters are everywhere in books, television, DVDs, on the internet and in films) and his other foot in his father's world where such magical characters are sinful.
At meetings and in publications, Watchtower teaches the unhealthy idea that the unbelieving parent is an evil sinner for not following Jehovah's organization, and will die at Armageddon.
"The boy's mother had raised concern about the boy being harmed by his father's religious beliefs and had told the judge how her son had once told her "God is good and you are bad."
Watchtower Rules and Regulations
Watchtower prohibitions reach into virtually every area of life and cover minutia to the extreme. Holidays and celebrations are condemned, except for the memorial of Jesus death. Higher education, career advancement and spending time with non-Witnesses is discouraged. Missing preparation for and attendance of weekly meetings and field service, which can take between 20 and 30 hours per week, leads one to be labelled as spiritually weak. As a result, it is very difficult for a child raised a Witness to develop into a normal, socially aware, well-adjusted adult. They are taught that those of the world are evil, and even though worldly people may appear to be kind, this is one of Satan's tactics to lure people out of God's organisation.
In 1995, David and Bryan Freeman, aged 15 and 17, violently beat and stabbed their Jehovah's Witness parents and brother to death. (See The Allentown Massacres 1 Feb 2012) The Freeman boys had experienced a life time training of hate; hate everything that God hates, everything non-Jehovah's Witness. They turned to the Aryan Brotherhood of Man because it offered them unconditional love, but still represented the same qualities of hate that they had been brought up to be comfortable with. Bergman feels that the "conditional love" Jehovah's Witness children receive can be a factor motivating those that have turned to heinous crimes.
Each year, 1% of Jehovah's Witnesses, around 70,000, are disfellowshipped and subsequently shunned. Only one third return to the religion, the remainder having their family ties severed for life. Mr Aron, director of Melbourne's Cult Counselling Australia, identifies that "shunning is "draconian, cruel and callous" … [and] could crush self-esteem and give feelings of guilt, especially in children." (The Age 16th Mar 2013)
Watchtower is aware of the damage caused by being disfellowshipped, as it mentions reinstated members can suffer emotional trauma for years, though blaming this on the aftermath of sin, rather than relating this to the public humiliation of disfellowshipping and trauma of being shunned by loved ones.
"Sin still has an aftermath. For example, a disfellowshipped wrongdoer may repent and be reinstated in the congregation, but it may take years to overcome the tarnished reputation and emotional trauma resulting from sin. Meanwhile, how comforting it is to have Jehovah’s forgiveness and the support of his everlasting arms!" Watchtower 1991 Oct 1 p.18
There are few mental health studies on Jehovah's Witnesses. Most are decades old, using methodologies that are lacking against modern research techniques, as discussed in the 2012 paper Jehovah's Witnesses and Schizophrenia by Michael Rand. Those carried out by former Jehovah's Witnesses contain possible bias in the results. Other studies have grouped several "cults" together and are not specific in regard to the unique upbringing of a Jehovah's Witness. Where writers have explained why the Jehovah's Witness upbringing is dangerous to children, the reasons are based on expected effects from the unusual beliefs and practices, rather than scientifically generated research. With the increase in available population statistics and computerised analytic tools it is a shame broader studies have not yet become available.
Despite a lack of reliable scientific studies, there is consistent indication of high levels of mental illness amongst Jehovah's Witnesses. There are a number of reasons why this could be the case - isolation from general society, an unrealistic view of the world and the destructive nature of the threat of disfellowshipping. Total reliance on a leadership that claim angelic direction, yet have a string of failed prophecies and doctrines, leads members to fear the religion may be wrong but fear leaving, leading to cognitive dissonance. Those that do leave are often inadequately prepared for life and lack a support group that would normally be developed in a healthy upbringing. Additionally, people with mental illness can be attracted to religious groups and the loving brotherhood that they promise.
Studies into Jehovah's Witnesses and Mental Health
Jehovah's Witnesses and Schizophrenia - Michael Rand 2012
Inside and Outcast: Multifaceted Stigma and Redemption in the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Jehovah's Witnesses - 2010 Karla McLaren & Janja Lalich
Wifely Subjection: Mental Health Issues in Jehovah’s Witness Women - Kaynor J. Weishaupt, Michael D. Stensland 1997
Jehovah's Witnesses and the Responsibility of Religious Freedom - Carolyn R. Wah
Jehovah's Witnesses and Mental Illness - John Stedman
The Mental Health of Jehovah's Witnesses - John Spencer
The Pessimistic Sect's Influence on the Mental Health of its Members - Harvey Montague
Doing Tolerance: How Jehovah's Witnesses Live with Unbelieving Relatives - Andrew Holden
Originally published June 2005. Latest update June 2017.
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2018