Secular therapy for problems due to religious upbringing
by Beth Mares RP (Ontario)

Ontario forest, soothing and therapeutic

As an admirer of the rich diversity, beauty and ingenuity of human culture, I have helped clients with a wide variety of religious beliefs to make use of their faiths to benefit their mental health, even though I am not myself a believer.

However, some of my clients have sought my help because they grew up in a restrictive religion that has limited their enjoyment of life and negatively affected their functioning.

Depression, relationship problems, and religious upbringing

Most of my clients with problems stemming from their religious histories were not obviously traumatized and abused. Most weren't terrified of hell as preschoolers, beaten to "break their spirit", abused by an emotionally disturbed parent using religion as an excuse, prevented outright from socializing with other children, or incarcerated in what are euphemistically called "the residential schools". 

Yet they learnt guilt and shame. Many learned to suppress feelings that didn't conform to what good girls and boys are supposed to be feeling, like "love" for someone they're not getting along with. Some got the impression that a child who is angry or "talks back" is ugly or dislikable; or that to want anything for oneself is "selfish".

Most don't believe those things any more--not at an intellectual level. However I've been struck by how the religious backgrounds of many of my clients contributed to the various problems that they have come to me about, especially depression, sexual problems, sex addictions, and other problems caused by having learnt to suppress feelings. Inability to make appropriate use of emotions can cause, among other things, psychosomatic disorders (stress-related physical problems), difficulty with making personal decisions, difficulty with intimacy, and vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation.

In the early days of my psychotherapy practice I trained in working with adult children of alcoholics, the "forgotten children" who had recently been discovered. Nobody will get into trouble badmouthing alcoholism; but problems caused by religion are harder to talk about, and most secular counsellors and therapists have received no training in recognizing and working with them. I find it important to be aware of them in my work.

Help with pain and disruption caused by changing beliefs

I also help with the angst of changing strongly held beliefs and values, loss of community, disruptions to family connexions, and attempts by family members to break up a same-sex or other-faith relationship.

Secular counselling via internet

I have been doing distance therapy throughout Canada for about 20 years, and find that it works very well for most people. Research on online therapy for depression and trauma have shown good results too.

Another resource: Short term affordable groups for LGTBQ+ people recovering from religion. See


Copyright © April, 2015 Beth Mares