Chapter 5: Four More Consequences of Church Trauma

Chapter 4 discussed four common effects of Church Trauma: cognitive dissonance, church exodus, dissociation, and abuser loyalty. This chapter addresses four more consequences of Church Trauma: loss of identity, mental disorder, family dysfunction, and shame.

Loss of Identity

 Trauma messes with concept of self.  After one is traumatized by the Church, victims often have no idea who they are anymore.  The Mormon Church is not just a religion; it’s a lifestyle.  Hence traumatization can cause a complete upheaval to a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future.  Few can appreciate the sheer terror religious trauma can create (Tarico, 2015).  Many considerations must be examined—“Should I stay?”, “Can I stay?”, “What will be the consequences of both choices?”  The intensity of identity-loss terror promotes anger, devastating sadness, relief, and frustration (Bagley, 2017).  People who leave realize that they lose more than just a place to go on Sundays.  They lose relationships with family and friends, social status, tribal approval, self-esteem.  They lose their God, their certainty, their gravity (Riley, 2015).  When the Church has been one’s whole identity, facing trauma within it is like swan-diving into a bed of nails.  It is like spiritual suicide, being forced to attend a thousand little funerals for the shattered former self, each worse than the last (Riley, 2012).

But there is a phenomenon going on here that needs deeper examination.  There is a perpetual law happening with trauma that actually applies to all aspects of life. Consider it carefully: If you pull a pendulum thirty degrees to the right, it will swing back until it is thirty degrees to the left. Isaac Newton taught this law but it is not just a physical principle (Singer, 2007). What goes up must come down; there are consequences for one’s behavior. And so it is with one’s belief system.  For example, let’s say one was born into a very cradled belief system on the far right side of life—into a very conservative Mormon home that taught members to “stay in the boat” at all costs (Ballard, 2014). It was instilled that one’s very salvation depended on not leaving. Indeed, members are trained to believe that life outside of the boat is scary, bad, and hard. Because of the extremity of this ingrained belief system, if that cradle breaks, “down will come baby, cradle and all”–meaning the swing to the left is going to be very hurtful, confusing, and hard (Hartline, 2019a). Further, the extremities are going to be obvious. The swing to the left is going to be manifested with intense anger and resentment–and often actions of fierce rebellion as well.  Consequently, when the cradle starts to crack, the response is going to be feelings of betrayal, depression, deception, and a complete loss of identity.

In fact, the pain is described as “so brutal, so intense, that it is easier to lie to oneself: Faith isn’t important; I don’t need God; I can partition off my soul with demolition tape and tip-toe around the condemned site forever” (Riley, 2012).  In this spirit, some give up on Mormonism entirely.  In an attempt to find some sense of normalcy, many find another religion, or, more likely these days, they abandon religion altogether (Bushman, 2013).  It can be very difficult to leave the “restored gospel” for another version of Christianity without realizing that there is so much more loss—prophets, revelation, priesthood authority, the plan of salvation, temples, etc (Dustin, 2017). Without their familiar Mormon God, they often are not sure there is any God at all.  Some feel the restrictions no longer are pertinent: tithing, the Word of Wisdom, and chastity (Bushman, 2013).  Finding meaning and a sense of anchorage post Mormon can be a most trying and difficult circumstance indeed.  

Mental Disorders

 Religious people have been shown to have a decreased risk for mental illness than nonreligious people. But the exact opposite can actually be true if the religion is viewed rigidly by the individuals within it (Aten et al, 2012).  Thus, Mormonism poses some unique tendencies for mental illness due to rigid dogma such as the common assumption that mental struggles are due to a lack of faith or righteousness (Tarico, 2015).  Within the Mormon paradigm, when anxiety or depression surfaces as a result of this belief, the problem will point to the sufferers, not the institution.

Mental illness ought to be of great concern to leaders in the Mormon Church as there has been a big influx of mental illnesses in the state of Utah, which is almost 70% Mormon (www.worldatlas.com).  In fact, according to a 2014 study, Utah was ranked with the highest mental illness in the United States (Christiansen). Utah also comes out on top as the most depressed state in the country as well (Goldman, 2018).

It appears that Church leaders are making headway by acknowledging the reality of mental illness (Holland, 2013), recognizing that it is not a result of sin or weakness of character (www.churchofjesuschrist.org).  Thankfully, the belief that mental illnesses can be cured by a simple priesthood blessing is waning (Tolk, 2017).  Yet, the truth is that too often when mental illnesses are manifested in the Church, it is the symptoms of trauma that are being addressed and treated: depression, anxiety, grief, OCD, etc. rather than trauma.  And yet, according to research, mental illnesses are being misdiagnosed; what we are really dealing with when we see mental illnesses is trauma (Whitfield, 2016).  Thus, if the Mormon Church wants a healthier people, it needs to stop hanging out in the “branches” and get down to the roots of trauma.

So let’s examine trauma closer.  Church trauma primarily deals with attachment trauma which includes antipathy (rejection), psychological abuse (cruelty), emotional neglect (lack of responsiveness to emotional states), physical abuse, and sexual abuse (Allen, 2004).  Attachment trauma can be particularly tenacious as it can influence the course of spiritual, social, psychological, and physiological development, especially if experienced in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. 

Further, the effects of church trauma line up pretty squarely with the DSM-5 requirements for PTSD (Corey, 2013). Most who have church trauma experience intrusive thoughts and memories, avoidance and numbing, hyper-vigilance, strong emotions such as anxiety, anger, shame, irritability, and sadness, self-blame, difficulty with sleep, and flash-backs (DSM-5, 2013).  For certain, the experiences are not exaggerated emotions, rebellion, a hardened heart, a lack of faith, or loyalty (Escobar, 2014). 

Further, it’s important to note a few things about the risk factors for developing PTSD: (1) Because of the diversity of human beings, not everyone is equally susceptible to developing PTSD after a trauma.  So even if someone has endured church trauma, it does not mean it is going to become a chronic problem for them.  The psychological response to a traumatic event is influenced by many factors such as preexisting temperament (guilt, self-reproach, and/or self-recrimination tendencies), personality traits (timidity, apprehension, and/or overly prone to interpret events negatively), an early history of separation anxiety, family history of depression or anxiety, neuroticism, parental psychopathology, the degree of life threat, or the experiencing of personal injury (Shaw, 2000); (2) Psychological inflexibility also predicts a higher probability of a PTSD diagnosis as well as symptom severity (Brew, 2017), which is not good news for many black-and-white thinking Mormons!  Inflexible or rigid mental processes, sometimes described as acute stress reaction (CSR), increases emotional suffering, posttraumatic intrusion, and avoidance symptoms, which often crystallizes into a more chronic, long-lasting PTSD condition (Zerach, Solomon, Horesh, Ein-Dor, 2012); (3) Females are twice as likely to develop PTSD.  Child-abuse exposed females particularly have an increased likelihood of having mental health difficulties (John, Cisler, & Sigel, 2017).  However, sexual violence, in particular, is more closely associated with a higher risk for the development of PTSD in both men and women (Brew, 2017).  It is also well-established that war experiences increase emotional distress regardless of gender; (4) If there is a great loss of resources (as many church members experience with church trauma), those people are more susceptible to developing PTSD than those who do not feel a disproportionate loss (Smid, van der Velden, Lensvelt-Mulders, Knipscheer, Gersons, Kleber, 2011).  For example, because young children do not have a great sense of fairness, they are less likely to experience posttraumatic stress symptomatology than an adult or older child (Shaw, 2000); (5) Another factor is a tendency toward scrupulosity and perfectionism (Pearce, 2010), which is deeply embedded in Mormonism.  Those who expect and want to appear “neat and tidy” at all times are also more likely to be traumatized when they cannot–or told they do not–live up to expectations set upon them; (6) Other important factors to consider are exposure intensity and frequency.  When someone is exposed to extreme stressors, it may enhance an individual’s reactivity to other stressors.  This process is termed sensitization to stress (Smid et al, 2011).  What this means for many is that the longer you go to a location that is traumatic, such as church, the more likely you are to develop PTSD.   Similarly, exposure to additional different types of trauma or situations that were previously neutral but now trigger reminders of trauma (maybe seeing church members, for example) are also more likely to deepen trauma or cause hyper-arousal.  Further, the more times a traumatic event is experienced (i.e. continued bullying), the greater the impact it is likely to have on an individual (Northcut & Kienow, 2011).

Two other types of traumatic situations unique to church trauma that often lead to PTSD need to be discussed: trauma from authoritarian figures and forced termination.  Both will be addressed below:

Trauma from authoritarian figureheads. When trauma is intentional, it is a blow to the whole psychological system.  Victims of unintentional trauma (natural disaster) show a much greater likelihood of experiencing a decrease in symptoms over time whereas those who are victims of attachment trauma or intentional trauma (something inflicted on purpose) tend to show an increase in symptoms over time (Brew, 2017).  One of those great trauma-imposers seems to be when it comes from authoritarian figureheads.  Perhaps the hardship of this type of trauma comes from what Sigmund Freud observed as “a common illusion of a father surrogate that loves all of the individuals in the group equally” (as cited in Northcut & Kienow, 2014).  In the Mormon Church, for example, the bishop or high priest is a father figure who supposedly loves all in his ward or stake equally.  To add to the conflict, members of the Church, believing the “surrogate father illusion,” will often call into question the trustworthiness of the victim, and, in support of the bishop or senior priesthood leader, quickly diminishes the reports of the individual, leaving the person without a sense of their own personal worth and identity (Northcut & Kienow, 2014). 

Indeed, religious abuse is often perpetuated by church members who may witness the effects of the trauma.  Rather than helping the abused, they often will believe that the abuser is justified in his action as he is viewed as the religious authority with rights to possess governing and decision-making power.  Additionally and sadly, too often both the perpetrator and the abused individual will believe that the abusive behavior is necessary and beneficial for spiritual purification (Bilsky, 2013).  Such responses deepen the trauma and further the isolation of the victims.  In addition, traumatic reminders of the actual event may occur by just attending church or even seeing church members that echo the trauma, causing retraumatization (Northcut & Kienow, 2014). 

Forced termination. It is important to understand that not just members of church congregations can be the victims of church trauma and subsequent mental illnesses.  Church trauma can also occur to those leading church groups and organizations.  Indeed, another demeaning and psychologically distressing experience that has received little attention and research is forced termination of clergy due to mobbing (Tanner et al, 2013).  Mobbing, as defined in Chapter One, increases risk factors for PTSD symptoms, leading to severe health consequences with more than half of those sampled receiving medical treatment.  The greatest shown cause of mobbing is a refusal for established congregations to accept new leaders into the community of worshippers (Tanner et al, 2013). 

In “new member” situations, the mobbing largely has nothing to do with error or competency but bigotry, gossip, jealousy, and prejudice.  When a new leader is not favored by a few established members within a congregation, the effects of mobbing are shown to be highly contagious as previously passive members become convinced that the new leader is a threat to them, thus increasing the number of mob supporters, hence inflicting psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual abuse upon the mobbed victim (Tanner et al, 2013).  Situations can be complicated further as leaders in such circumstances often find themselves completely depleted of self-compassion, which is a unique predictor of burnout in church leaders (Brodar, Crosskey, & Thompson, 2015).  Thus, as a result of mobbing-related hatred and confusion, compounded with their own feelings of worthlessness, many church-mobbing victims develop a serious illness or commit suicide as a result (Tanner et al, 2013). 

Family Dysfunction 

Since the introduction of the F criterion for the diagnosis of PTSD in the DSM-5 (traumatic disturbances must last longer than one month), the issue of family functioning has received greater attention (Zerach et al, 2013).  Thankfully, this added criterion has increased understanding and sensitivity for the negative effects of traumatic stress on family relations.  Because the family is a vibrant not a static system, changes in the family dynamics are likely to occur when one of the family members undergoes a traumatic event that results in severe emotional injury (Zerach et al, 2013).  In such cases, the emotional crisis is experienced by the whole family, bringing about a major threat to the family’s structure, functioning, and satisfaction.  Those traumatized at church, for example, may manifest avoidance tendencies and emotional numbing in response to church, which can affect how the whole family feels about their religion and even God. 

Thus, we need to be very clear that when we are talking about trauma, we are talking about families. No man is an island.  When a mother is hit, for example, a family has been hit.  And this is often generational.  If Mormons are honest and are careful not to canonize their Church heritage and the people in it, the fact has to be faced that there is a lot of trauma in Mormon history—nearly right from the onset—particularly with women and minorities (Reel, 2017; Park, 2014). And perhaps the symptoms of trauma are more prevalent then often realized.  Geno-charts, for example, show that depression, anxiety, grief, etc. are carried down generationally (Gehart, 2016).

These facts are concerning because when an attempt to get closer to a traumatized family member is encountered with intolerance and disregard, family cohesion is likely to be hindered and the gaps between family members may deepen as family members may avoid contact due to the traumatized unexpected rage (Zerach et al, 2013).  Thus, due the fact that family structures are so complex, three factors of trauma will be examined: 1) the effects of trauma on marriage; 2) the effects of trauma on children; and 3) the effects of children’s trauma on their parents.

The effects of trauma on marriage. Among PTSD sufferers in general, studies have reported outbursts of hostility and rage, avoidance, and aggression towards family members (Northcut & Kienow, 2014; Smid et al, 2012) and difficulties in intimacy and marital communication (Zerach et al, 2013).  Matters are further complicated when a spouse can no longer perform simple tasks such as attending church functions or supporting a children’s performance where “harmful” church members may be gathering.  Because of these complications, the whole family has to learn new rules on how to function post-trauma.

Indeed, it is not uncommon for a once stable marriage to falter under the pressures of church trauma as couples experience intense emotional problems and challenges (Speight & Speight, 2017).  In fact, many trauma victims reported lower marital satisfaction, articulating their desires and intentions to end their marriages (Zerach et al, 2013).  Of particular concern is that research suggests that secondary traumatic stress (STS) is one of the main factors in decreased relationship satisfaction and distress among couples coping with trauma (Monk, Oseland, Goff, Ogolsky, & Summers, 2017). So although a partner may not have directly experienced the trauma, through intimate contact with the survivor, the partner may begin to manifest symptoms that parallel those of the survivor, increasing compassion fatigue, distress, and despair. 

            The effects of trauma on children.  Traumatized children deeply upset the functioning of a family as their symptoms typically include “trauma-specific fears, fears of recurrence, anxiety, intrusive recollections of images, ideation and perceptions associated with the traumatic event, posttraumatic play, behavioral re-enactments, regressive behaviors, somatic ills, avoidance of traumatic reminders, behavioral and school problems and changed attitudes about self, others, and the future” (Shaw, 2000).  Children experiencing church trauma through bullying and rejection, for example, have an increase in social and separation anxiety and suicidal ideation in childhood (Silberg, Copeland, Linker, Moore, Roberson-Nay, & York, 2016).  Emotions also greatly fluctuate after a trauma, increasing the likelihood of mood and anxiety disorders, phobias, conduct disorder, and substance abuse (Shaw, 2000).

The effects that parental church trauma has on children also needs to be considered.  Indeed, children often “connect vicariously with the pain and suffering” of their parent’s trauma, which can heighten family conflicts as family members often begin to feel estranged from each other (Basham, 2009).  In the aftermath, the family tries to find “normal” again but sadly, soon learn that “normal,” as they once knew it, is no longer available. 

The effects of children’s trauma on their parents.  Unlike parental trauma, there seems to be mixed evidence as to how significantly impacted parents are by their child’s trauma.  One study indicated that parents often develop symptoms of dysfunction and distress after their offspring’s traumatic events, stating that parents are “at risk of developing psychological difficulties” after their children have been traumatized  (Tutus & Goldbeck, 2016). While another study indicated that there does not seem to be reason to believe that there is any such correlation (Diehle, Brooks, & Greenberg, 2017). 

However, without a doubt, the way parents handle their own personal church trauma is so very hard in a moment of extreme emotional upset but their responses play a crucial role in helping children work through their own distress and religious feelings.  One study indicated that older children in particular seem susceptible to STS, indicating a greater likelihood of carrying more religious scars than younger children, who seem more resilient and more versatile in moving through the hardship with less difficulty (Speight & Speight, 2017).  A pattern that has shown to be particularly harmful on younger children, however, is when traumatized mothers withdraw from their children, becoming emotionally unavailable.  Another harmful pattern is when mothers are preoccupied with religious trauma and thus re-expose their children to traumatic reminders often (Tutus & Goldbeck, 2016), which becomes particularly complex when a mother wants to raise her children in her religious faith despite the hurts that exist there for her.  Through it all, trauma too often violates prior explanations and meanings for life for the entire family.  Thus, if parent-sufferers are not careful, church trauma can be a great destroyer of dreams, of religious faith, and of spiritual practices not only for themselves but also for their children (Northcut & Kienow, 2014).

Further, there does seem to be a connection between environmental (home) and genetic factors in how children respond to trauma, thus demonstrating the need for parental sensitivity in child-rearing.  Genetic contribution is between 30%-40% (Pape & Binder, 2016).  Further, after a child is traumatized, the majority (78.8%) of parents reported also having been exposed previously to traumatic events (Tutus & Goldbeck, 2016).  These numbers suggest that parents who are symptomatic add to a “toxic family effect” in the home, which might be problematic in helping children cope with their trauma.  Indeed, for all children, weaker family functioning has been significantly associated with poorer mental health (Sangalang, Jager, & Harachi, 2017).

Of particular interest is a mother’s role in a child’s response to trauma.  Studies have found that children whose mothers suffer from PTSD, have a greater risk in developing PTSD themselves, whereas there was so such association found with paternal PTSD (Tutus & Goldbeck, 2016; Diehle et al, 2017).  Maternal traumatic distress has also been “indirectly associated with antisocial and delinquent behavior,” as well as depression in children (Sangalang et al, 2017).  Additionally, studies indicate that if a woman is being mistreated—in the home or in other environments—her children are also likely to be mistreated in that same environment (Namy, O’Hara, Nakuti, Bukuluta, Lwanyaaga, & Michau, 2017).  Such findings point to a need for greater awareness on treatment toward women to ensure better care for the rising generation.

Shame

The Mormon Church, perhaps by default, promotes a shame-and-tame culture.  Shame, guilt, and perfectionism work well within the organization because they keep members religiously in line.  There is a difference between shame and guilt that might be helpful to explain.  Shame involves pervasively negative feelings about the self (e.g. feeling incompetent, damaged, unlovable), whereas guilt relates to feelings about specific actions that have harmed others.  Shame and guilt feelings tend to perpetuate trauma (Allen, 2004).  Often these feelings stem from child-taught belief systems. For example, in the Mormon Church, at very young ages girls hear time and again that they need to be modest so their bodies do not tempt boys to act inappropriately.  They are taught essentially that they are responsible for the thoughts of males (Oaks, 2005).  In fact, it was not until 2016 that the Church removed the language from the Personal Progress book, a guide for young women, which stated that a girl’s virtue can be taken by rape (www.churchofjesuschrist.org).  Further, in the popular book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, which is still handed out by many bishops to victims and perpetrators alike, it states that unless a rape victim does everything in their power to resist, they would be better off dead (Kimball, 1969).  Thus, is it any wonder that Mormon youth frequently blame themselves when they are assaulted? 

Further, children often internalize the critical and inconsistent behaviors and opinions of their church leaders, contributing to a sense of shame and inadequacy (Cook, 2005).  Traumatized children learn to be intensely self-critical and to suppress emotions, particularly negative emotions, and to conform to the group’s demands.  Thus, a traumatized child in a church setting will inevitably experience frequent negative emotions as a result of being consistently placed in a double-bind (Bilsky, 2013).  The child is often expected to be perfect yet is told that he or she is in constant need of repentance. Thus, parents need to be especially vigilance in knowing what is happening at church with their children and their leaders.

Additionally, if the trauma is potentially embarrassing or shameful on the family image, matters can be complicated further by parents, guardians, or other trusted adults who sometimes encourage or prevent a child from reporting the abuse (Cook, 2005).  Some adults—even well-meaning parents—may even deny or minimize the traumatic occurrence, or accuse children of “making up stories,” all of which compound the psychological trauma of the event.  If the trauma was inflicted by a trusted family “father figure,” (i.e. church leader) the psychological ramifications may lead to overall feelings of rage, powerlessness, and spiritual distress, not just for the child but for the whole family (Cook, 2005).

Further promoting of the shame cycle in the Mormon Church is the teaching of offense, which is the only level of hurt doctrinally taught to members (Bednar, 2006).  Essentially, everything negative that happens in the Church is dealt with under the lens of forgiveness and offense, thus throwing all of the responsibility onto the victims.  The lack of trauma-informed care is spiritually abusive within Mormonism, which furthers the destruction on those suffering from trauma.  Just like a slap needs to be treated differently than a deep oozy cut, so does psychological trauma need to be acknowledged and treated differently than offense.  Members need to understand that unlike offense, people do not choose to be traumatized (Hartline, 2018c).  One does not choose to be robbed or assaulted or shot.  But because there is no room or credence for psychological trauma in the Mormon Church, too often victims are shamed and ill-treated rather than embraced, validated, and accepted (mylifegogogoff.com).

There are two responses to shame that need to be examined: self-harm and suicide.  Both will be addressed below:

Self-harm. Partly due to the lack of trauma-informed teachings and care, many trauma sufferers struggling with intense shaming will resort to unhealthy forms of coping.  They seek to relieve tension in the short run, only to create additional stress in the long run.  Examples are substance abuse and self-injurious behaviors (Allen, 2004).  It can be hard for people to appreciate how deliberately self-harm (e.g. self-cutting) can relieve tension.  Yet, for people with PTSD, such behaviors can actually be calming.  These actions can often be seen as manipulative—trying to “get attention.”  But the main point is trying to relieve tension.

Suicide. Self-harm is intended to alter consciousness and suicidal behavior is intended to eliminate conscious pain, once and for all.  It is important to understand that self-destructive and suicidal actions are borne out of unbearable emotional states (Allen, 2004).  Of particular concern within the Mormon community are LGBT youth, who are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth (Hale, 2018).  This may be a large reason the Church’s Exclusion Policy was recently reversed, as suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah youths ages 10 to 17, making the state’s suicide rate for all ages +60% above the national average (Ramseth, 2018; Hale, 2018).

Indeed, although Utah is ranked the second happiest state in the nation (www.usatoday.com), it is ranked the fifth in suicides (www.cdc.gov).  Research explains this counter response phenomenon: Where there is a lot of happiness, there is going to be an opposite reaction (Baumeister & Bushman, 2017). This is because when someone feels that they do not fit into the “happiness” mold, when they are told they do not make the cut, when the “happiness” standard is higher than they are able to reach, there is going to be a counter response.  This is a problem with the proudly-set high standards in Mormonism.  In fact, in a 2005 study, it showed that the number one cause of suicide among Mormon boys was masturbation shaming and for Mormon girls it was losing their virginity or having a baby out of wedlock (Malan).  If the Mormon community wants a healthier people, the shame-and-tame culture needs closer concern and attention.

One thought on “Chapter 5: Four More Consequences of Church Trauma

  1. Wow!!! I needed so badly to read this tonight. I have been fighting the Mormon church for seven years with the sexual abuse cover up here that happened.
    I learned a lot from reading this because I have and had felt a lot of these and lived it. Reading them has given me some power to take a few more steps forward.
    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m sure it has and would touch so many lives if they would get to read it.
    You have an amazing talent and ability to bring words alive.
    (I am sorry. I don’t know you but I know you have had to live this yourself in some form unless God wrote through you because everything you wrote is point on. Thank you and I look forward to reading more from you. The world needs to read what you write.

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