Understanding Spiritual Trauma & Abuse

Understanding spiritual trauma and abuse
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I often train providers on the concepts of spiritual trauma and spiritual abuse. Spiritual trauma is trauma whose source is spiritual communities, faith leaders, religious belief systems, and perhaps even God. Spiritual abuse refers to any harmful, abusive dynamic that uses spiritual practices (i.e exorcisms), spiritual beliefs (i.e. a belief that transgender people are evil), or spiritual systems (which may be unregulated), to control or manipulate a person in need. While not recognized as a discrete diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more and more institutions are acknowledging that religion and spirituality can cause trauma, particularly for marginalized people.

Spiritual trauma is distinct from other kinds of trauma in that individuals raised in theologically violent or abusive environments may feel that they cannot escape from their perpetrator, especially if it is an all-knowing, all-powerful source. People may believe they are irretrievably inferior, lost, sick, or evil based on some aspect of their identities, despite sociocultural and even theological support to the contrary.

The LGBTQ community has been targeted by religious institutions for hundreds of years–in politics, in the media, in addition to rejecting experiences by churches, family, and friends. There is evidence that spiritual trauma is widespread for LGBTQ individuals (US Trans Survey, 2016; Levy and Lo, 2013, Mikalson et. al., 2013). Religiosity is correlated with family rejection, which is correlated with increased levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicidality, and homelessness (Ryan et. al., 2009, Durso and Gates, 2012). Furthermore, when faith-based anti-LGBTQ messages are promulgated in the media, LGBTQ allies often experience a crisis in faith, motivating possible affiliation changes and sometimes, negative mental health effects (Russell, 2004; Brown et. al., 2011).

There is also evidence that providers working with LGBTQ people often exhibit some kind of bias related to religion and spirituality–either dismissing religion’s importance in the client’s life (often because of their own spiritual/religious experiences), or harboring anti-LGBTQ theological beliefs (Buser et. al., 2011; Moe and Sparkman, 2015; Shelton and Delgado-Romero, 2011). This can put people in a “double closet,” unable to access supportive, healing interventions where they can integrate their whole selves.

Based on my background in theology, I believe particular anti-LGBTQ theological messages correlate with certain negative internalized beliefs, which can become pathological. In my 8 hour training on Spiritual Abuse, Trauma, & Mental Health Among LGBTQ People, I explore these damaging messages, their connection to mental health outcomes, summarize available research, talk about how anti-LGBTQ theology has evolved, and recommend interventions to support clients as they heal their spiritual trauma.

I offer this training, often for free, several times per year. Fill out the form at the bottom of the page to sign up for my newsletter to hear about the next time the Spiritual Abuse, Trauma, & Mental Health Among LGBTQ People training is offered!

For more information, check out the resources below. They contain helpful worksheets, reflection questions, and other exercises for you and those you serve.

Resources on spiritual abuse and trauma:

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen

Soul Repair: Rebuilding Your Spiritual Life by Jeff Vanvonderen, Dale & Juanita Ryan

Steps to Recovery from Bible Abuse by Rembert Truluck

Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winell