The Mental Health of Jehovah's Witnesses
Summary: The function of religion in human society is complex. The part played by religion
in psychiatric disorders is even more obscure. Previous literature and theories are
divided into two groups: one school believes that intense religiosity is a symptom-complex
indicative of psychiatric disorder, while the opposing view is that religious belief in
some way acts as a defense mechanism protecting the individual and his psyche.
The present study of 50 Jehovah's Witnesses admitted to the Mental Health Service
facilities of Western Australia suggests that members of this section of the community are
more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital than the general population.
Furthermore, followers of the sect are three times more likely to be diagnosed as
suffering from schizophrenia and nearly four times more likely from paranoid schizophrenia
than the rest of the population at risk.
These findings suggest that being a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith may be a risk
factor predisposing to a schizophrenic illness. Further studies would be interesting in
investigating whether pre-psychotic people are more likely to join the sect than normal
people and what part (if any) membership has in bringing about such a breakdown.
Many of us have on occasions surprised ourselves at our rather impulsive, discourteous
behaviour when faced with the persistent insistence of members of the Jehovah's Witnesses
sect. The firm conviction with which they not only adhere to their beliefs but also
incriminate us, is rather disquieting. Any attempt to dissuade
them logically is frequently met with a further monologue of their inflexible belief
Many sociologists have turned their attention to the phenomena associated with religion
and religious factors, but there have been remarkably few studies correlating choice of
religious belief with personality or mental disorder.
Roberts (1965) in a further study found that those whose conversion was sudden and towards
the faith of their parents had high scores on the EPI neuroticism scale.
Graff and Ladd (1970), administering the Personal Orientation Inventory and Dimensions of
Religious Commitment forms to 163 male students, found an inverse relationship between
'self-actualization' and religiosity.
Freud (1913) saw religion as an attempt to gain control over the sensory world by means of
the wish world and as an attempt to place upon God that dependence which had originally
been upon the father. Thus he saw it as a symptom of neurosis. Other analysts, however,
have extended this approach to include psychotic disorders. Fenichel (1946) states that
religious delusions as a rule are rooted in longings for salvation together with attempts
to master overwhelming, indestructible, schizophrenic sensations by verbalizing them.
Fromm (1960) supports this theory and postulates that religious ideas fulfil at least four
1. A symbolic means of communication;
3. To silence the individual's anxiety;
4. As a positive creative function.
As a result of his searching studies, Jung (1933) felt that man possessed a natural
religious function and that his psychic health and stability depended on the proper
expression of this, just as much as on the expression of the instincts. It was an
essential feature of religion to give conscious expression of the archetypes. Consequently
the nature of the religious expression indicated the disturbance the individual was
experiencing with the unconscious. Jung thus differed from the classifical analysts in
pointing out that one could not generalize about religiosity, as this in itself was a very
varied phenomenon. ; Doubt has been cast on analytical theory by several workers. Thus
Lane (1968), in a study of go patients, attempted to measure the 'Degree of Concern for
Religion', and correlated this with the results on the Edwards Personal Preference
schedule. He concluded: 'It now appears that it is more promising conceptually to regard
religious concern as being related to various functional psychological needs than it is to
cast it aside as being a symptom of psychopathology or as being a negative prognostic sign
of recovery.' : Boison (1952) puts forward a convincing argument that religion is a highly
personalized affair, and he provides clinical evidence that even bizarre types of
religiosity can be converted into constructive channels when such an intense religious
experience is successfully related to unmet psychological needs.
Lloyd (I973) states categorically that religion s a coping device and can be regarded as
normal or symptomatic. In the latter situation the individual's normal devices fail or
their integration is threatened and the change is usually towards the more enthusiastic,
irrational, fundamental and emotive sects where the psychotic patient may well be
supported, protected and hidden from society. However, he fails to explain how he has
reached this conclusion.
The principal problem seems to be to decide whether extreme religiosity such as is seen in
the so-called 'neurotic sects' (Northridge, I968) is a symptom of an overt psychiatric
disorder, or whether it is a complex defence mechanism against an underlying disorder. '
The Jehovah's Witnesses sect was started by Charles Taze Russell in 1872. He proved to be
a man of doubtful integrity, but the movement has spread around the world. It is not
necessary for the purpose of this paper to describe the organization's structure, but its
members ardently believe that the world as we know it is shortly to cease and that only
those few who have rigorously obeyed their creed will gain eternal salvation with Jehovah.
Each Witness believes it is his personal duty and responsibility to bring these facts to
the notice of everyone he comes in contact with, and to make an attempt to save them from
eternal earthly existence.
Their principles and ideas are inferred from what conventional Christians would regard as
an arbitrary selection of texts from the Bible. Some of these selections are so oblique
and tangential that they seem best understood as misinterpretations or even false ideas of
The sect does not appear to place much emphasis on sex or guilt, and it denies the
existence of Hell. If this belief system has a psychiatric parallel, Northcott's adjective
'neurotic' is inaccurate and the terms 'psychotic' or 'paranoid' would appear to be more
appropriate. It seemed of interest to investigate and attempt to clarify some of these
hypotheses by a study of psychiatric disorder among members of this or of any other extreme
During the period of 36 months from January 1971 to December 1973 there were 7,546 in-patient admissions to the West Australian Mental Health Service Psychiatric Hospitals. Of
these, 50 were reported to be active members of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement. It was
not known what proportion of these were respectively converts or second generation
The number of Jehovah's Witnesses in Western Australia was stated by their official
agency, Kingdom Hall, to be approximately 4,000. The total population of Western Australia
on 1 January 1973 was 1,068,469, the majority (750,000) living in the greater Metropolitan
area of Perth City. As in most Australian cities, the population consists principally of
native-born Australians and of a large group of immigrants, mainly from Europe, but with
minorities from other areas also. Western Australia also has approximately 20,000
Of the 50 admitted 22 were diagnosed as schizophrenic, 17 as paranoid schizophrenic,
10 as neurotic and one as alcoholic.
Admissions for schizophrenia 1973
||Annual rate per 1,000 population
||Jehavah's Witnesses admissions
||Annual rate per 1,000 population
|Paranoid Schizophrenia (195-3)
From the figures gathered in the Table it is clear that members of the Jehovah's
Witnesses movement are over-represented in admissions to the Mental Health Services of
this State. Furthermore, it is clear from the Table that the incidence of schizophrenia
amongst them is about three times as high as for the rest of the general population, while
the figure for paranoid schizophrenia is nearly four times that of the general population.
A further finding that has come to light is that the admission rate for paranoid
schizophrenia appears to be higher in Western Australia than in a comparable English area
(Plymouth, 1972). This finding has been noted before in areas where there has been
immigration from different cultures Kraus (1969). The mechanisms underlying this finding
are presumably of a complex psychosocial nature and need not be discussed here. However,
they are of some interest as in the English area there is also a lower reported following
of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement.
If it is argued correctly that the function of religion is preservation of the ego and the
silencing of anxiety, and that conventional religiosity is an expression of a healthy
psyche, then extreme religious views may represent a form of expression of a psychotic
As mentioned earlier, the experience of guilt in religious behaviour other than in sudden
conversion has not been studied to the knowledge of the writer and could also be a
subject for further investigation.
Also illuminating would be a comparison of the data for converted Jehovah's Witness with
those for subjects who have derived their faith from their parents. The study does not
shed light on the question of symptom or defence mechanism, but suggests that either the
Jehovah's Witnesses sect tends to attract an excess of pre-psychotic individuals who may
then break down, or else being a Jehovah's Witness is itself a stress which may
precipitate a psychosis. Possibly both of these factors may operate together.
Karl Marx once remarked that religion was the opiate of the people. Is it possible that the
schizophrenic, with his thoughts in a turmoil and plagued with doubts about his identity
and ideas of reference, is able to gain the support of a non-pharmacological tranquillizer
from membership of a sect such as the Jehovah's Witnesses? If so, mental health workers
and religious leaders should perhaps take a fresh look at the structure and function of
these and other related groups.