A Ministry of Misery: Mental Illness and the Jehovah’s Witnesses Part 1
by Charley Carle
” Happy is that people, whose God is the LORD” Psalm 144:15. This indicates if a person’s God is the LORD, Jehovah, he will be happy. If his God isn’t Jehovah he may not be happy. If he is miserable, certainly his God could not be Jehovah. If people are following God in the right way, they will be characterized by happiness. The mental health of the Jehovah’s Witnesses speaks something of their relationship with God, or lack thereof.
Psychiatrists have an important tool they use to diagnose mental illness. For a parallel, consider medical doctors. They use tools like the thermometer and the stethoscope. If a person has a lot of germs in his body, the temperature will rise. A thermometer helps detect the problem. The doctor can also tell a lot about a person’s physical health by the stethoscope. Psychiatrists likewise have a simple tool they use.
Question. The psychiatrists tool is a simple question. That question is, “Are you happy?” If the person says, “No. I am miserable,” he has revealed the chief indicator of mental health problems. If a person is happy and is honest, we cannot really say he is sick. Mental health does not look at any disease process in the body tissue. It primarily looks at, are you happy?
Let’s ask that question of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Are you, as a Jehovah’s Witness, happy?” Dr. Jerry Bergman’s experience from working with hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses and congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses for over 20 years is, they are miserable people with very few exceptions! They know they are not happy. But are they going to tell you that? Obviously not. They are not going to sit down and tell you their problems. Doctors have an advantage from doing therapy with the Witnesses year by year. Naturally, when they are coming for help, they are going to tell what is wrong and what their problems are. That is why they pay doctors to help them. The patients know they have to be honest and tell how they feel in order to be helped. Imagine going to the doctor and the doctor says, “Well, how to do you feel?” The patient responds, “It is none of your business!” That patient could not be helped very much. Doctors have found a large number of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be very unhappy people. They are miserable!
Depression. What are some of the problems the Witnesses have? All kinds of mental diseases could be listed. Essentially, the main problems are depression, feeling of helplessness, worry, doubt, and conflicts in the congregation. The elders try to enforce extremely rigid rules. For a few years wire-rimmed glasses were condemned. If a person came into a Kingdom Hall with wire rims, that individual would have to sit down for a conference. He would be told, “We notice you are wearing wire rims. You are falling out of the truth. We are concerned about this. We think you need help.” It becomes absurd after a while. And as you can imagine, trying to enforce this much rigidity and this much conformity, creates problems. When one really believes the Watchtower is God’s organization, the elder becomes God’s representative. In a sense, what he says is almost like God saying it. Therefore, if an elder says a person is immature because of wearing wire-rimmed glasses, that is like God saying you are immature because you wear wire-rimmed glasses! This causes people to feel depressed and to say, “I’m a bad person! I’m terrible!” And naturally they feel guilt, worry and doubt.
Impressions. Of course, Witnesses try to paint a picture to outsiders that they are happy people to give a good impression of the Organization. They want to convey the idea, “We are all happy. Join the Watchtower Organization.” Psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers and other sources have much to say about the emotional problems of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses were contacted including a number of high-ranking officials in the Watchtower. The leadership typically responds, “But we do not know what to do!” Then they reject solutions. While the Witnesses lack happiness, they are obligated to pretend as if they have it.
Contradictions. “Well,” you might ask, “How do they rationalize this? How do they go around believing, ‘We have the truth. God is with us. He is using us. And yet we are miserable’?” Some of the Witnesses conclusions sound rational even though they are false. First, they believe those inside the Watchtower Society are God’s people. Everybody outside the Watchtower Society is of Satan. They reason, Satan would try to do everything he can to be nice to those outside of the Watchtower because he has all of them. They consider those inside the Watchtower to be Satan’s failures. Therefore, Satan would try to make everyone inside the Watchtower Society miserable. The Witnesses reason that their general unhappiness, thinking the people on the outside are possibly happier, proves they are God’s people. If you reason through the problem with them in this way, they would probably say, “No, not quite.” But in conversation you can see they really believe it.
On the other hand, they teach the opposite. They teach the only ones who are truly happy are those within the organization. They say those outside are miserable because they are not in God’s Organization. The contradiction is somewhat upsetting to the Witnesses; but they should at least think about it.
Many Jehovah’s Witnesses are aware of the serene contentment of godly Christians. This can cause them some paranoia. Psychiatrically, the most common mental illness among Jehovah’s Witnesses is known as paranoia schizophrenia. Most studies show that it is at least four times higher among the Witnesses than among the non-Witnesses.
One can understand how they would become paranoid. They see people outside of the Organization who seem to be happy while the Witnesses are not happy and they know they aren’t. When a Christian talks to them about their error, it often makes sense. How would you expect the Witnesses to react? Frightened! It is frightening to people to feel they are wrong. At this point they can either change their beliefs or they become paranoid or crazy with mental illness! The Witnesses commonly refuse to acknowledge any value from what other people have to say.
Ramifacations of the Mental Illness Problem
Condemnation. The Witnesses constantly point to the worst in everyone else. They are the biggest pessimists in town. When something happens somewhere in what they call “Christendom”, they immediately grab on to that and exaggerate it. Witnesses constantly talk about food shortages and people being laid off. They are constantly worried about droughts and earthquakes. When something like this happens, they all talk about it. What would you expect from such a negative view of life? People become depressed. Many times Witnesses go home very depressed after talking about all these things. It frightens them. Many school age and preschool Witnesses have nightmares from what they hear. When parents talk about the tragedies in the world all the time, how would you expect young people to react? They become very frightened and very insecure.
Suspicions. In pointing to the worst in everyone else, the Witnesses have a distorted view of people. They are suspicious of everyone. They tend to feel everyone else is bad and out to get them in one way or another. They feel that a large percentage of non-Witnesses are homosexuals, sexually promiscuous, thinking only of material things, and are really the lowest sort of people. How do they respond to others? If you felt that everyone out there was a homosexual, a murder or a cheat, you would be pretty careful about associating with those kind of people. Should you be friendly with them? “You’d better not! They might be homosexuals!” Jehovah’s Witnesses are fearful of associating with other people.
Alienation. The Witnesses ideas about other people causes them to isolate themselves. They live in a world of their own. They live in constant fear of everyone else. How difficult to believe “My friends at the Kingdom Hall are the good people, and I wonder about them sometimes. But everyone outside is bad and trying to get me.” Therefore, they really can’t enjoy other people. They really can’t help other people. They are afraid people are going to ensnare them in something, in all kinds of things. This fear in psychiatric terms of alienation is called “anomie”. A separation is established. Psychiatric problems are a very significant factor in developing mental illness. If a person has plenty of friends and can satisfy this need for company, affiliations, associations and to feel at one with man, he will go a long ways toward avoiding mental illness.
Isolation. It would help if the Witnesses could satisfy the need of trust within the congregation. In other words, “O.K., everybody out there hates me, and I hate them, but at least if I have my brothers in the congregation I’ll be all right. I’ll have friends.” But what happens? What happens when you have a list of rules that travel without end, condemning incredible things? For example, calling a bulletin board a “bulletin board” is taboo. The term is improper because the Roman Catholic church calls it a bulletin board. Therefore, you have to call it an “information board”. If you slip up one day and call it a bulletin board, people would look at you and say, “You are immature. You are not very well grounded. You must be falling away.” What a difficult situation to be in! Then people inside the congregation go around and condemn each other. They are suspicious of each other. If a person slips up, they may stay away from him and avoid any unnecessary association.
In essence the situation is, as a whole the Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot satisfy these needs within the congregation. They cannot feel at home and as one with those inside the congregation. It’s hard for them to respect each other, because they are constantly breaking these minor taboos, and occasionally, some of the major ones. What happens? They feel alone in the world. They feel, “I am the only one! I am all by myself.” That is a very difficult feeling to live with. This condition is incredibly strong in developing mental illness. People with a lot of friends do not tend to develop mental illness. Rather, the people who do not have many friends are the ones who are quite susceptible. Every psychiatrist recognizes this law of behavior. You need friends! It’s like the law regarding food. If you do not eat after six months, what is going to happen? You are going to die! If you do not have friends, if you live by yourself and isolate yourself from other people for six months, you’ll suffer mentally. Various scientific terms describe this. A person literally withers away without friends. The hermit, in contrast, may do all right because he makes up imaginary friends. He talks to them and has fun with them. Or animals become his friends. Since animals do not fully replace people, a hermit tends to act a little strange after a while. The stereotype is that he will become mentally ill and talk to himself. But, why would he talk to himself? He does not really have friends. Isolation is a very important factor which influences the development of mental illness among Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Expression. Another contributing factor leading to mental illness is that eventually the Jehovah’s Witnesses become afraid to talk to each other. For example, if you and I were both Jehovah’s Witnesses and I told you all my problems, what may happen? Consider the problem the Watchtower Society had with wire-rimmed glasses and colored shirts for a period of time. If I sat down and told you I secretly wanted to wear these, what may happen? You may listen and you may understand and try to help me. But you might not. You might go and tell the elders of my sins. Then what? My sin, or my contemplated sin, may become a subject of gossip in the congregation. This commonly happens. The first, second or third person I confide in may not expose me, but it will happen. When a Witness confides in another, that person might listen and seem to try to understand or he may condemn the individual. Then the problem shared in confidence becomes the subject of congregational gossip. What happens next? You would not confide in another Witness again! Then what happens? Again, isolation!
Detection of the Mental Illness
A person may ask, “Well, how do you know for sure the mental illness rates are so high among the Jehovah’s Witnesses?” What scientific studies are available to show it is high?”
One study was done by Dr. Spencer. He is an Australian psychiatrist. He included every admission to several mental hospitals all over Australia and found the number of those who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He asked if they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Quite a few Jehovah’s Witnesses would say, “I am not.” They often would not admit on record that they belonged to the Society. One reason for their denial is that the Society looks down on psychiatrists. Secondly, Witnesses may be willing to protect the Organization’s reputation even if they are hurting. In spite of some dishonesty, Dr. Spencer found that paranoia schizophrenia was four times higher among the Witnesses than among the population as a whole. He agrees this is probably an underestimate.
Another psychiatrist, Janner, is Swedish. He did a study on all those who were imprisoned because of their objection to military service. This was a good sample of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because in essence he had access to every male between the ages of 18 and 26. He psychiatrically examined all of them. Janner found that of all those held, 85% were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He found the mental illness rate was about 40 times higher among the Witnesses than among the population as a whole. Statistics taken at face value are simply estimates. Probably a few Witnesses acted insane in order to go on hospital status which was a better atmosphere. Others who were rated as insane were only trying to act insane. Others, because of the trauma of being in prison, actually were insane. However, they may have behaved somewhat normally in their life outside. The estimate is probably high; but it does say the percentage of the mental illness rate is much higher among the Witnesses than among the population as a whole.
A study by Precore in 1949 was an examination of all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned because of their objection to the selective service law. He found, 16% were in the hospital for one reason or another. Of these 16%, 44% were diagnosed as psychotic. 50% had medical problems as blindness, deafness, or some other problem. In other words, Precore found that 8% of the total Jehovah’s Witnesses diagnosed were psychotic. Psychotic means you are legally insane. 8% means the mental illness rate, according to the study, is again about 40 times higher among Jehovah’s Witnesses than among the population as a whole.
Another study was by Rylinder. He examined Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison because of their conscientious objection. He found that the mental illness rate was 32 times higher than the rest of the population.
We are aware of no study where the mental illness rate is the same or lower for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The research says, it is much higher.
Documentation. An expansion on these studies and further information is available in Dr. Bergman’s book. You may obtain your copy from: Witness Inc., P.O. Box 597, Clayton, CA 94517. (A complete catalog of materials is available upon request.) The Mental Health of Jehovah’s Witnesses, order #787, costs $9.95. Add 10% for postage and handling in the U.S.A., 20% for other countries, 8% sales tax for California residents.
Identification of the Reasons for the Mental Illness
Dereliction. Why is the mental illness rate high among the Witnesses? One common reason is, even though the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dedicated to the Watchtower Society, the Watchtower doesn’t seem to be very dedicated to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They seem to be very callused. Dr. Jerry Bergman worked at the clinic at one of the Watchtower assemblies. One of the Witnesses working with Jerry was a medical doctor. He related to Jerry that at a previous assembly three infants died of sunstroke. Younger children can very easily dehydrate and die in the sun. The doctors thought they would go to the administration and ask them to just make an announcement, “Mothers, be careful! It’s hot out here. 90 degrees. Don’t put your infants in the sun and leave them there for two hours.” They refused. They said, “We can’t spend precious microphone time with personal announcements.” Both of the doctors later left the Society and found a real relationship with Jesus Christ.
There are so many complaints about the Society. If a Witness writes the headquarters a 10 page letter, he may receive a brief response in 6 months, “We’ve received your letter. Thank you.” The Society often publishes something that may seem valid and logical to them, but their conclusions are way off. Way off! So they have to change again in few months. Some Witnesses have spent years doing research, even typing sixty pages of their study and the Society said, “Thank you. We have received your letter. When we get time we will look at it.” They do not acknowledge the observations or the value of the report. If the study is wrong they should say, “It is wrong.” They sometimes do, but they usually don’t. How would you feel after doing a lot of research and trying to be helpful? After this happened to one Witness, he sent another letter saying, “Dear Brothers, if you were a baker and discovered there was poison in your bread, would you say, ‘Well, we’ll take it out when we have time’?” In other words, “I think I have found some poison in the teaching. If it is poison, you should take it out. Now! If it’s not poison you should let me know so I can take it out of me. But let me know!” Again, they were too busy. That’s upsetting! One could cite dozens of examples where the Watchtower was not at all responsive to the needs of the Witnesses.
At the Brooklyn headquarters a teenager was working on an elevator and fell down the shaft. Why didn’t the Watchtower have someone working on it who knew what he was doing? Another was working on a press and lost his arm. They sent him home with nothing! “You can’t work here anymore. You can’t run a press with one hand.” There are similar incidents.
Preoccupation. The Witnesses express a constant concern over the picky stuff. The white shirts were an issue for about 4 years. The wire-rimmed glasses were an issue for about a year. Hair is a perpetual issue. It is said the Witnesses talk about dress more than anything else. The talk is mostly critical of what other people are wearing. They are very preoccupied with this, partially because they are overly concerned with the image they are trying to present. Much is spent on the proper attire to make each one a clone.
Intimidation. Another problem stems from the continual stream of articles in their publications which present ideas that are completely foolish. For example, one idea originating from one of their leaders, Schroeder, is that one’s feelings, attitudes, likes and dislikes are not from the “mind” but from the “heart”. They believe when Scripture says the heart reads a man, the heart is physical. They should know the Greek word actually means the seat of the emotions. The Watchtower taught the literal heart is what makes you think! “You do not think in your brain. You just store things away in your brain. The heart does your thinking.” They asked at an assembly some years ago, “Now is this a pump? No. It is not a pump. This is where feelings, ideas and spirituality emanates.” A clear problem arises from their supposition. Surgeons have taken the physical heart out of the body and replaced it with a plastic heart or another person’s heart. The Watchtower taught the heart is the place of feelings and if you took it out and replaced it with a plastic heart, you would not have any feelings. But what happens when a physical heart is replaced with a steel pump? The person thinks, acts and feels the same way. His feelings don’t change. For a while the Witnesses taught if you received the heart of a criminal in a heart transplant, you would be a criminal. You would take on that person’s personality. There is just no evidence for their preposterous idea. It’s foolishness! Witnesses talked about this for two years. They have not brought it up for several years now as far as I know. Someone must have let them know the whole idea is just totally wrong, totally fallacious. You can’t be saying things like that without loosing more credibility. That “new light” was not very bright! They apparently have not come out to admit their heart idea was wrong, unless it was just recently, but they may have to sometime.
Associations. The social problems among the Witnesses is critical. They have a clichi among themselves. “When you move into a new congregation, you love everyone, at first. But after six months you find out everyone’s faults and they find out your faults.” Then the Witnesses don’t like each other anymore.
A religion that stresses works for salvation inspects their people. They have said, “If you have long hair you won’t survive Armageddon. You will be destroyed forever.” So naturally, they are very concerned about outward appearances. To wear wire-rimmed glasses meant for a time a person was obviously lost. As a result, “I’d better not associate with you. Your badness may contaminate me, causing me to be lost. So, I have to be leery about you.” Speakers at the assemblies say, “Remember, not all those on the inside are really Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Witnesses look around and think, “Maybe he is not really a Jehovah’s Witness.” They do not really trust all the others. The Witnesses are constantly suspicious of anyone who is different. If a person is different in some why, he is going to be singled out as, “Well, maybe he is not quite a Christian. Maybe he is not a good Jehovah’s Witness.”
Education. The Witnesses put down differences among them. This includes both higher education and lower education. They are very suspicious of college graduates. Not many are among them. They are also very suspicious of people with very low levels of education. There is pressure for everyone to have a high school diploma, no more, no less. They are rigid on that. Although if you only have a grade 10 education the pressure usually is not so great. A doctors degree is very hard for them to deal with. Anyone with education is a threat to them. They are preoccupied with humbling people, especially those who are well known and those who have good jobs. What does the humbling amount to? Putting you down! They constantly put down wealth from the platform. In essence they are saying, “If you are wealthy you must not be a Christian. You must be bad, or you are likely bad.” The same holds true with education or prominent jobs. What happens under this constant degradation when people happen to be Witnesses and happen to be wealthy? They are going to have a hard time. They are susceptible to an inferiority complex. This is exactly what happens to those who are different.
Promotions. Jehovah’s Witnesses are constantly striving for status within the congregation. They cannot have much status outside the congregation. Working toward promotions is wrong. They cannot get a good job that may take away from Kingdom Hall responsibility, that’s wrong. They can’t do well in sports, that’s wrong. They can’t perform in front of an audience, that’s wrong. “You are exalting yourself.” You can’t do well as an artist, that’s wrong. “You are exalting your own works.” They are constantly criticizing whatever things people do to be< liked and to be respected. The Witnesses tend to think the only ones who can earn recognition is the Watchtower Society. All glory should go to the Watchtower Society and Jehovah. A lot of Witnesses give up their careers. One Witness had the opportunity of going to the Olympics and they convinced him not to. "Oh, you are bringing glory to yourself and the nation." What happens to these people? They become frustrated. They have no place to say, "Look what I accomplished."
The exception to the restricted personal promotions is within the Kingdom Hall congregation. As a result there is a conflict for status and a power struggle. The men jockey for the position of “elder”. The Witnesses respect that term. They do not just say, “An elder.” They say, “He is, an, ELDER!” A lot of prestige goes with the office. Men constantly suggest, “Well, I know Brother Jones does not study his Watchtower every week. I do not think he would be qualified as an elder. I! I study my Watchtower every week. So, brothers, I would appreciate you taking that into consideration when the appointment for ELDERS is made.” Men constantly talk this way. Then when a person becomes an elder others try to shoot him down. If there are 20 elders, one doesn’t have much status. If there are only three he has more status. So, “I am an elder. These 19 other men are elders. If I can remove them, I am more important.” A similar scenario happens with the “Pioneers”. Constantly, people tell their own status. “I am a PIONEER!” And you know within 10 minutes who are the pioneers. They walk by and say, “Hi. I am sister Jones. I am a pioneer!” The Watchtower Society is aware of this effort for recognition, so they say, “Now, brothers and sisters, if you are an elder or a pioneer, you are just a servant.” They tend to put down leaders. Yet, the Witnesses know the status of these people within the congregation is respected, so they still strive for positions.