The Church-Trauma Tree

Let me introduce myself. Maybe you know me. I’m Danna Hartline.   I am the founder and creator of the Mormon Trauma Mama—this website right here—which focuses on church trauma and healing. If you are a follower, I hope you’ve found it helpful.  I have an incredibly talented team that works with me—maybe you’ve noticed! My team and I also run a Facebook group called LDS Church Trauma and Healing.  As a team, we are also organizing an invitation-only summit this fall called When Church Hurts.  We are bringing together some of the top minds in this movement to collaborate and support each other’s efforts as we work on raising awareness about the harmful effects of church trauma in the LDS Church.

During that time, we are going to be discussing this church-trauma tree. This visual shows us how trauma often looks for those suffering from church trauma in the LDS Church. (I want to stop here and point out that church trauma doesn’t have to happen at church.  Trauma can come in the home, for example, based on the teachings of the Church.  For example, if a man believes that because he has the priesthood, he has authority over his wife and children, much trauma can be inflicted in the home by such a belief system.)  But regardless of where church trauma occurs, it always starts in the roots. Some of these roots are:

  • Organizational Behavior
  • Patriarchal Structure
  • Unrighteous Dominion
  • Unsafe Policies
  • Cultural Behaviors
  • Church Doctrine
  • Unsustainable History
  • Discrimination

Now, I know these are likely hard for many to digest.  But these are real issues that many struggle with.  These are the outlining roots of most people’s traumas in the LDS Church–and they are not the same for everyone.  Not everyone who suffers from church trauma in the LDS Church has all of these roots.  Some just have suffered from one root.  Some have many or all.  But we must not dismiss these factors.  They need to be acknowledged and explored to understand what is really going on with those who are hurting as the result of these roots.  These causal factors of trauma are what will be discussed at greater length during our summit so you can expect to be hearing more on those.

But it is important to also look at the consequences of traumatic situations related to church trauma. Because of church trauma, we see many serious side effects, including the following:

  • Cognitive dissonance

When it comes to church, too often religious organizations and its leaders are deemed incapable of inflicting suffering or engaging in any real wrongdoing or abuse.  So when abuse does occur, severe cognitive dissonance will often arise within the victims as they struggle between the horror of the abuse and the perceptions of the clergy’s divine authority.  Attempts to resolve this dissonance often involve the victims blaming themselves, which are often reinforced by the perpetrator’s affirmative statements. Thus, too often, in an attempt to meet the need for “community” and attachment to God, the victims will internalize the abuse.  The victims will sadly often adopt the belief that they are sinful, thus allowing themselves to retain the belief that the perpetrators are “good,” thus avoiding the shattering of their religious worldview. However, by using this method of resolving cognitive dissonance, the victims pay a large price through the adoption of self-criticism and self-loathing for circumstances that are beyond their control.

  • Church exodus

After experiencing church trauma, many find that they lack feelings of safety at church. Rather than being a hospital, a place of healing, it becomes a place of trauma—a place that causes an emotional uproar just to enter. And so for the sake of their mental, emotional, spiritual wellbeing, people walk away from church.

  • Dissociation

Now, this may sound the same as church exodus—and it can be—but because of the teaching of the Church, many feel leaving is not an option. The Church gives no viable options for leaving. And so in an attempt to cope, trauma victims will dissociate, not just with others but with themselves. They tell themselves, “This isn’t real; this isn’t really happening; I’m not really here…”

Think about it: We see this all the time—people who are not fully functioning at church. We need to be curious as to what is really going on—get down to the roots. With dissociation, sufferers want to stay as far away from their abusers as possible and all of their associates and any other trauma-triggers, which is often anything church related, particularly the church building.  They want to utterly close off from anyone and anything that triggers trauma—and yet in so many instances they feel they MUST STAY—which only deepens the effects of trauma on the victims, week after week.

  • Abuser loyalty

Now, I want to point out here that everyone’s trauma tree is going to look different because everyone responds differently to trauma. So this one is in stark opposition of dissociation.  This voice says to just try to be better, do better.  It’s the “I’m not good enough but I’ll fake it until I make it” and “It’s all my fault” voice.  And so the traumatized just try to sidle up to their abusers—they just want to fit in—to act like, serve like, be like their abusers—to pretend that all is well in Zion. So they serve a little harder; smile a little bigger, butter up just a little bit more.

  • Loss of identity

Trauma messes with concept of self! Trauma victims just want to find normal again—themselves again—but soon they realize that “normal” as they once knew it is out the door. This is greatly disconcerting because they aren’t sure who they are anymore. The Church is all many of them have ever known but it’s no longer working for them and they don’t know where to go or who to turn to. Additionally, many receive mixed messages from members. Labels are attached—they are called dissenters or apostates or heretics. Members begin to dissociate—the traumatized aren’t the only ones dissociating! In so many cases, the trauma victims are treated like they are the cause of the trauma, rather than mere sufferers.

  • Mental disorders

The truth is that too often when we see mental disorders, we treat the symptoms of trauma—depression, anxiety, OCD—but until we get to the root—the causal factors of trauma—we are only applying band-aids. Research shows that mental illnesses are misdiagnosed—that what we are really dealing with is trauma. The Church needs to look at the influx of mental illnesses. Utah—which is almost 63% LDS (sorry, I said 70% in the video)—is ranked #1 in the nation with mental illnesses. We need to stop hanging out in the branches and really look at what is happening in our Church if we want a healthier people.

  • Family dysfunction

Let’s be very clear here: When we are talking about trauma, we are talking about families. No man is an island. When you hit a mother, you hit a family. And this is often generational. If we are honest and are careful to not canonize our Church heritage and the people in it, we have to face the fact that there is lots of trauma in our church history—nearly right from the onset—particularly with women and minorities. And studies show that children connect vicariously with the pain and suffering of their parents. And perhaps this is more prevalent than we realize—symptoms of depression, anxiety, grief, for example, are carried down generationally. And our geno-charts will show us this. What we will see is that many family members develop secondary traumatic stress (STS) due to the suffering of their parents. Further, studies show that in environments where a mother is being mistreated, the children are being treated likewise. This should be of concern to us.

  • Shame

We very much live in a shame and tame culture in the LDS Church. We kind of like guilt and perfectionism because they keep us in line. They keep us guilty. And we call any wrongdoing offense, thus, placing all of the blame onto the victim—that is spiritually abusive and it needs to stop! People do not CHOOSE to be traumatized. Trauma and offense are distinctly different. But we don’t give room or credence for psychological trauma in our Church so what happens is that too often victims are shamed rather than embraced, heard, and accepted.

So then we have suicide.

I want to talk about that. Utah is ranked the eighth happiest state in the nation. There’s a lot of happy living there. And whenever you have a lot of happy living, you are going to have a counter response. Utah is also ranked the fifth in suicides in the nation. When you don’t fit the mold—when you don’t make the cut—when the bar is higher than you can reach—when people tell you that you don’t fit in, there is going to be a counter response. Did you know that in a 2001 study, the number one cause of suicide among LDS boys was masturbation shaming and for LDS girls, it was losing their virginity or having a baby out of wedlock? (This is a PDF file that I cannot figure out how to attach.  If you would like me to send it to you, please email me at

If we truly care about the wellbeing of our members, we need to get down to the roots of what is really happening in our Church. That is what the upcoming summit is about—you will be hearing more about the results of that soon!

8 thoughts on “The Church-Trauma Tree

  1. LaRue Brough says:

    I have been pondering and praying about this and having been a victim of this in more ways than one, last night the Lord showed me that the only solution to this is to truly teach people about Him and how quick He is to forgive if we turn to Him with full purpose of heart.
    As I have been studying in 3 Nephi 11. This is such an important chapter to truly understand about His doctrine.
    As I was pondering on His words, it came to me that the only true freedom we can have is in Jesus Christ.
    Joseph Smith said he teaches them correct principles and they govern themselves.
    God showed me that when we turn to Him and repent that He is not a God of guilt, fear, and shame, or condemnation. If we truly seek with all of our hearts for Him, and repent, God will give us the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost. It is Him we need to confess our sins to, not a man. It is He who determines our worthiness, and when we repent we know within ourselves if we are worthy.
    He showed me how much freedom there would be for each of us if we each, individually had a relationship with Him. There would not any longer be the need to even have worthiness interviews, because we would each have the freedom to determine for ourselves if we are worthy.
    Then we could stop judging one another and just love and encourage each other as we are seeking the truth of who He is!

  2. Michelle Snow says:

    Good article. Church trauma is increased and multiplied when the abuse is from authority.

    It shattered my mind; I glued it back in pieces.

  3. fara Williams says:

    My story is very ugly: 1. An ex-husband that beat me & our children. 2. he was a peeping tom & got arrested 3 times. I caught him numerous times. I finally divorced him when I was young enough to start a career. 3. The church never disciplined him. It’s 30+ years later. All of my children have had severe problems. 4. My daughter has chosen to not have anything to do with me. (2nd phase of Trauma & abuse) she’s a religious fanatic like her Dad. I’ve dated a lot. 5. The Mormon men in the SL Valley are the biggest creeps you would ever want to know. They all like polygamy dating & they get away with it! 6. I have been treated like a piece of trash in every ward I’ve lived in along the Wasatch Front. I have tried to be active in each ward (at least 5 wards). I’m still attractive in my 60+ years on this earth. Mormon women just can’t take that!!!! It’s because of the history of polygamy. All Mo women are scared to death they’re going to have to live this law. I know that’s why I’m never included. I’m sick of it!!!!!!!!

    I have walked away for good!!! I don’t know why everyone is trying to effect change in the LDS church. To me they ARE DEAD!!!!! My road has been so long and hard that I no longer want anything whatsoever to do with Mormons or the disgusting Mormon Church. The church leaders will NEVER apologize for what they have done to people and kids. They are a bunch of arrogant egotists, just like Joe Smith was. What a piece of trash he was. I’ve just finished reading “No man Know my History”.

    I’ve also almost completed a book of my story. I’m looking for a publisher. I am now retired. If need be, I will go across the entire nation telling my story and that the Mormon church is designed to collect money & nothing else. They are like the money changers in the temple when Jesus kicked them out. I still believe in God. I’m still looking for another church to join. But I’ve had a gut full of Mo-ism and WANT NO MORE OF IT!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I don’t know why so many people want to get changes made to the church.

    • Hey. Touched by your story. Please look up Mooji on youtube. I believe you’ll find the truth you are looking for – it’s inside of you, not anywhere outside of you. Eckhart Tolle is a great starting point as well, esp. his book, power of now. Brene Brown is a great one to on youtube.

  4. Eliza R. Snowden says:

    I saw you speak about this at Sunstone and love the diagram. BRILLIANT! Thank you for sharing, this will help so many people like myself who are working towards healing from church trauma.

  5. Heidi Wilson says:

    This is amazing! During the time that I was in regular therapy due to the effects of childhood abuses and issues that are ongoing in my family of origin, I
    frequently felt frustrated at the lack of material available from the church to really aid me in my healing process. Everything I read just alluded to the atonement and faith in Christ to heal, but I never really found any “hows.” I made my way through it and through promptings and guidance was led to material and support that was right for me.

    This would have been so helpful to have at the time so that I could have a clear picture of what was happening to me. I knew that I felt worse at church and I was exhausted all the time, but it took me a long time to even make the connection that Inwas being TRIGGERED every single Sunday from the very source I was clinging to for comfort and strength. Every therapist who works with LDS clients needs to embrace this model and share it with their clients.

    Two more things:

    1. LDS members need to realize that the reason people leave is not always simply “apostasy.” Sometimes it is a matter of one’s mental and emotional health.

    2. When there is a scheduled lesson in RS/priesthood on abuse, it needs to address the effects on victims and how fellow members need to be supportive. Usually I have seen blanket statements about how abuse is wrong, blah blah blah, but there is never anything in theblesson that is truly healing. I have also seen the teacher simply change the lesson’s focus to how we all just need to seek the spirit more and love each other, then talk in general ways about being Christlike, all the while avoiding the dirty “A” word. I have also known of cases where when a victim has spoken up during these lessons to share vulnerable and heartfelt things the room just goes uncomfortably silent and people gossip about that person later or say they tried to make it all about them. I had an RS president whose attitude was the latter.

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