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Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) – is it a thing?

I have been specialising in helping individuals who have left high-controlling religions for the past two years. Most people I help, are individuals who were born into families who are practising Muslims. A lot of my clients were Muslims themselves, and like myself, now identify as an ex-Muslim. Recently a client asked me, is there a term for what we go through?

In the UK, there is no recognised diagnosis for anyone who has left Islam or another high controlling religion. Religious Trauma Syndrome is not a diagnosis or term that is known here. It was coined in 2011 by Dr Winnell and you can read her work, including causes and symptoms, here Journey Free – Recover from Harmful Religion.


A lot of people who leave Islam have some common ground. Often, we are battling with our guilt. The guilt of the impact that leaving Islam has on our family, the way it has made our parents feel, the way they (and we) are now judged by the community we once belong to. It is this guilt that prevents so many of us from openly being able to say, ‘I am no longer a Muslim’. After all, guilt is a feeling that comes from the sense we are doing something wrong. We have been conditioned, from a very young age, to believe that going against Islam, bringing shame on our family, and living our life in a certain way is ‘wrong’ and that it is our duty to prevent these things from happening. We believe(d) that the whole purpose we are here, is to serve God and please our parents.


We are led to believe that if we do these things, not only are we damning ourselves to an eternity in Hell, but our parents have also failed and will suffer the same fate as us. This fear is instilled in us from a very young age and we see it as being factual. It’s a lot of responsibility to put on a kid, no?


I suffered from OCD for many years. The CBT Therapists reading this will know this is often driven by a sense of heightened responsibility. My OCD was very much driven by the belief that if I didn’t do all my rituals, something bad would happen to the people I love… Hmm, I wonder where I got that belief from?


If you haven’t watched the documentary ‘Keep Sweet, Pray & Obey’ on Netflix, I would highly recommend it to see how individuals can control the lives of young ones (and sometimes adults), instilling so much fear into them, that they dare not question things.


For those of us lucky enough to be born in a place with diversity and where we have access to education, as we move into adulthood, we begin to learn how to think for ourselves and so our beliefs might change, but shifting this sense of us doing something that is ‘wrong’, is much harder.


Anyone who works in mental health knows there is literally no training we receive on people who leave the Religion they were born into. There isn’t even any data on how many people leave Islam/other religions. The support network is very much hidden and takes place online in hidden groups on Facebook or on Reddit.


You only need to look at websites such as Home | Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain - CEMB to see that across the world, there are many people who leave Islam, but no one seems to be talking about this. There is a lot of fear of being seen as being Islamophobic – that is not what Religious Trauma Syndrome is, and it should not be used to silence people whose struggles come as a result of leaving Islam.


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