The Watchtower and Mental Illness

Being a Jehovah’s Witness is, as they say, “no walk in the park.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses live a very stressful lifestyle. While some find comfort and acceptance within the organization, a growing number realize that they are “living a lie.” They can not possibly live up to the standards the religion sets for them. Their sex lives are restrictive, they can not carry on normal relationships with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they are banned from any contact with former Witnesses – including members of their own families. They have limited options for employment or expanding their education. The Watchtower Society even limits their medical options and choices for professional counseling or treatment.

While many JWs will deny it, most find going to meetings at the Kingdom Hall mind-numbing and a boring waste of time. The “Kingdom” songs are nearly impossible to remember or sing, the prayers are sleep-inducing, and “public talks” (repeated every few weeks in spite of having different titles and speakers) are essentially the same speech with minor changes.

In spite of all of those negatives about being a Jehovah’s Witness (and we didn’t even mention knocking on stranger’s doors or traveling long distances to attend overhyped and underwhelming conventions and assemblies), most will try to convince you that they love the lifestyle and everything about being a part of such an organization.

Unfortunately, the Witness lifestyle creates “cognitive dissonance” within individuals. Trying to enjoy day-to-day existence under such a lifestyle can lead to extreme mental stress and eventual illness. Having to face the constant threat of losing family and friends if they don’t live up to current Watchtower standards, choosing to get an education, or accepting a blood transfusion in case of life or death – eats at their insides. They can’t talk about any of these issues with anyone else and to do so has unthinkable ramifications.

Life as an ex-JW can be even more stressful. Ex-JWs have to face living within a divided family, loss of self-esteem, fear and regret. Ex-JWs constantly wonder that maybe returning to the religion is the only way to stop their pain. They will find more pain and frustration trying to make up for lost opportunities in education and employment. Others find that they can never really learn to fit in to the larger society.

Steph Le Gardner, an AAWA board advisor and co-editor of, wrote an article for that explains how she found a successful process for healing and surviving the Watchtower lifestyle and unique mental pressure. We are pleased to reprint her story here for our readers…

Learning Not to Fear the Watchtower Monster

Contributed by: Steph Le Gardener

We fear violence less than our own feelings. Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict. ~ Jim Morrison


The fear Jim Morrison spoke of is a real thing; it can be debilitating to those of us who normally exhibit courageous behavior. I’ve read a lot of comments lately from former Jehovah’s Witnesses who are terrified when JWs come knocking on their door. I remember my own journey through this paralyzing fear–cowering deep within the recesses of my bedroom, bathroom, or closet if I saw them working in my apartment complex, begging my husband to keep them away from me.  Even to my own ears this sounds irrational. But, is it?

After doing research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I came to realize that what many of us experience is actually quite understandable. When we go through the excruciating and intrusive exercise of judicial committees where intimate and personal details are pried out of us, or when we are publicly humiliated in front of a congregation of members, or when we are being shunned by our closest family and friends–this is traumatic! We are made to feel guilt and shame for actions that have little or no impact on others in the congregation.

Mayo Clinic says:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and taking care of yourself, such traumatic reactions usually get better. In some cases, though, the symptoms can get worse or last for months or even years. Sometimes they may completely shake up your life. In a case such as this, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder.

In my own case, it took a few years to get over the terror that the Witnesses would come to my door and try to guilt and pressure me into returning to the fold. I didn’t feel I was strong enough to resist them, and had recurring JW-themed nightmares for many more years. I didn’t know how to stop my reactions, and never shared this with anyone.

About 8 years ago, I began searching online for JW info, trying to find stories of other former members who would understand my personal experience. It was about this time I found the newly formed ex-Jehovah’s Witness Recovery Group on MySpace (now on Facebook). While I had done a lot of personal recovery up until this point, I was stunned at the connection I felt with the folks there. Being a natural extrovert, I immediately began sharing my story and listening to others. What I didn’t realize was that this was the missing piece to my own recovery–realizing that the boogeyman (the Watchtower) was no longer in control, and that I WAS NOT ALONE!

I began pouring my fears and feelings into poetry since there was so much emotion that was now surfacing. My anxieties and fears were right in my face…but, now I had other folks that could understand. We shared our triumphs and struggles.

During this short period of time (about 4 months) I stopped having those nightmares. Talk about a relief! I began facing my fears head on (with my new friends at my side) and it was liberating. To be honest, even with the majority of my fears at bay, I still get butterflies in my stomach when they come to my door. But, I no longer hide away. I know now that they cannot hurt me any more than they already have. I realize that at some point they could be walking the same journey as me, which allows me to have some measure of compassion for them. I do not, however, let them intimidate, guilt, or shame me any longer.

To this day I’ve been an active member of the recovery group. It serves as a reminder of how far I’ve come, but more importantly, I’m able to share tips and tricks to help others remove this fear from their lives a little faster. It’s a wonderful thing to have groups out there that provide emotional support while dealing with the monster that is the Watchtower. If one group doesn’t fit your needs, keep looking. Additionally, I highly encourage former Witnesses to find a good counselor, particularly one trained in cult or religious trauma. Dealing with the emotional upheaval early on will give you a leg up in your own recovery.


Reposted with permission from Steph Le Gardener. Original blog can be found at

Photo credit (featured image): “The Stress!!!!” – Carl Dwyer, Germany


The Watchtower and Mental Illness — 26 Comments

  1. Having been a Watchtower Adherent for 49 years and my dear wife for 52 years, we can certainly concur with all of the feelings and emotions that Steph has written about. My journey started as a young boy in London England, when my Mum & Dad swallowed the bait of ‘living for ever’ on Paradise Earth in the early 1950s. That is when our misery started, my Mum had lost a leg in the War and my Dad was wounded in the desert and so peace on a Paradise Earth appealed. We moved from a nice house in London to serve where the ‘need was great’ and lived in a Caravan/Trailer for a number of years and endured much hardship.

    My brother was killed in a car accident at 17 and my sister became mentally sick over the trauma and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia….she died at only 49 after years of misery, my Dad died in 1994 and finally my Mum died in 2001 and non lived to see the Paradise they were told they would be walking into ‘very soon’ as it was imminent.

    Thankfully in 2002 both my wife and I walked in a place we were told was false and got saved by our Lord Jesus Christ and have not looked back since. My wife suffered terrible depression in the 70s and was on Valium, now she is nearly 65 and full of the Joy of the Lord.

    We serve in Cyprus as leaders of Lifespring Church Larnaca and love worshiping and praising the Lord in freedom….we have learned not to be judgmental and have freedom in the arms of the real loving God.

    Bless you all and may all those still in captivity be released into the Love of our true God who saves us by Grace and not by threats and intimidation.

    Pastor David Hall

  2. I left the cult and my wife and my son were taken hostage to push me back! When they failed this, an elder arranged a meeting with her and another divorcee (a woman) who was about to remarry with an Elder! This divorcee had broken up with another JW young men two months earlier. Can you imagine, in the middle of the meeting I called my wife using my mobile phone and accidentally she answered and could follow all the meeting. They were discussing how Jehovah would give her a better husband (a brother) and I laughed at it: INCEST! A sister marrying a brother. That was on 26 December, 2012. She has now been waiting for the brother to marry and she is getting impatient! I think she is UNDER UNTHINKABLE EMOTIONAL STRESS waiting in vain for my faith… Do you believe the wife I am talking about is a NURSE and the divorcee was trained to be a MENTAL HEALTH NURSE? Do they understand the definition of Health according to WHO? This is “cognitive dissonance”!!

  3. Great articles, Richard and Steph! I know exactly what you are describing, I felt it too. It is doubly disturbing because the more stress you feel, the more you try to fulfill WTs expectations, only to find yourself becoming more and more stressed, and for many of us, finally a crash. We don’t realize at the time, that it is the WT that is causing the problem in the first place, that the “religion” is designed to make you a failure! Thanks for the enlightening info, and we will continue to try and reach as many people as possible about that sham of a religion, the WT.

    • Thanks, Isabella, the Watchtower environment is very unhealthy, making guilt-riddled codependents out of its members. Freeing one’s mind is such a gift, even though it’s hard work to get there,

  4. Wonderful article Steph! I’m so happy to see issues like this being talked about more and more. To the outside world, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal; but, when you go through it yourself, it can be very difficult. Having the support of those who truly “get it” makes such a big difference.

  5. Great read Stephanie! This is so right on. I was diagnosed with PTSD many years ago and still battle with it. I never know when it will be triggered or what will trigger it but it sends me into uncontrollable spins of self destructive behavior. I know most of it I can blame on the cult. I can have wonderful periods of mental and emotional health… then crash and burn. Still trying to figure out the triggers. So far all I know is it’s related to dealing with the current shunning I’m enduring (and I’m not even disfellowshipped!) and memory flashes of abuse from JW members which includes my own mother and wicked pedophile step father who was an elder. It’s a battle.. So I thank all the ex-jw community for the encouragement and understanding I have received over the years 🙂 Please keep writing Steph!

    • Thanks for sharing your own experience, Sharon. I’ve known so many former members who deal with PTSD. It’s tragic that the kind of abuse that triggers this is still allowed to go on every day within the walls of the Watchtower Society.

    • Sharon, I understand totally about the triggers. I was a witness until I was 22 and still struggling with PTSD. I even have black outs after I am triggered and don’t remember the terrible things I said to either my sister who is a witness, all my family is, so that makes it hard to forget this crazy religion. I faded out, so not disfellowshiped but have to lie about living with someone after 4 failed marriages. I had no idea how to pick a mate after not being able to even talk to anyone outside of the JW. I’m hoping to find someone to help me with this mental illness. I’m tired of pills!! Anyway, thanks for what you wrote.

  6. I was born-in, way back in the 50’s. My mother was abusive and an alcoholic. She wanted a son, and I was born a girl. She has never once told me that she loves me, so I guess she doesn’t. After years on serious psych meds and counseling, I finally realized that it was not that I was unloveable, it was her problem and failing. I told friends and family that once I quit going to meetings, I began to feel so much better! Because no matter how much you do or how “good” you are, it is never good enough!

  7. Yes, Lee, the pressure to “achieve perfection” is incredible. They always want more hours, more money, more, more, more. It always leaves one feeling lacking. It is incredible to be out from under the kind of scrutiny, pressure, and misplaced guilt.

  8. Yes its really a very very sad thing dealin with the aftermath and mental illness of being X J.W. As an X myself i know the pain your talkin about.It may take years of deprograming.What a shock when you read Diane Wilsons book escape from the Watchtower and the abuse she endured.And also read the Ray Franz book also. He revealed the inner workings of those slave masters in New York and what they were actually doing behind the scenes.I feel sorry for anyone who gets hooked on the fish lines.If you read and study with an open mind you will find most of the things they are saying about God does not even come close to matching up with common sense.How can a God of Love or how can you fall in Love with a God who is going to murder everyone in the world accept you.if you don’t join the kingdom hall.Thats the most ridiculious thing i ever heard of in my Life.Its no wonder why there members are walking around with that dazed look in there eyes. They have suffered trama.and are real real sick.You have to treat them as sick people.Dont hurt them try to help them if you can.

  9. Wonderful article. So true. After being involved most of my life as a JW, I admit that I have been freed from the usual cognitive dissonance, I may have lost my family unit on this, but I am in tune with myself. I’m open to them; they are not open to me. I’m not the one under control anymore.
    I’m breathing.


    *** w11 8/15 p. 22 Questions From Readers ***
    A number of factors—including past religious beliefs or even mental or emotional imbalance—might cause some to assume mistakenly that they have the heavenly calling.

    If you can also use this link:

    If this happens in the “SHEEP” = Anointed = Little Flock, the problem of Cognitive Dissonance is obviously more serious in “OTHER SHEEP”!!!

  11. I was a JW since birth (baptized when i was 15, dissociated myself when I was almost 19). I am now 37 year of age and my parents have shunned me and have not spoken to me for many years.

    However, they have a good standing relationship with my stepsister who was turned down for baptism by the elders when she was 14. Since then, she has not re-applied nor has she returned to the organisation. She also ran away from home when she was 16 to seek refuge with her non-jw family in the UK.
    I know for fact through other sources that my parents come regularly in the UK to visit my stepsister but refuse to see me because in their eyes “I am dead”.

    My father is an elder (i learned about this through a local newspaper on the net in France as I now reside in the UK) and NOT ONLY does he comply with the family shunning directive and policy but he is also selfishly motivated to do so given his position as an elder. This is clearly stated in the elders secret book Shepherd the flock.

    My father re-married when I was about 2 and had me in custody as he believed that if I lived with my mother, I would have an unhappy life and she was not worthy as she had left the WBTS one of the reasons why they divorced. My mother’ s mother taught my father in the truth but she also left just after 1975 went by. Both my father and stepmother always discouraged to see her because she was labelled “worldly” and would have been a bad influence to my well-being. in fact, when I was 5, we moved to Mauritius as there was a need for JWs and that is when I lost all touch with my mother. As a result, I grew up as a JW but without a mother for almost 19 years until I left. Why did I leave?

    When I was 17 or 18 I was assigned to the sound for Recording public talk at the Kingdom Hall, I gave talks when I was 8 until I left, pioneered several times, spoke at conventions… I strived to be a good witness and wanted to end up at HQ because preaching was hard. I was even challenged by an elder when I was pioneering about my hours and whether they were made up. That is when my doubts started. Then when I was often sitting at the back of the call to do the sounds, I started to take a step back as to what I was hearing, a smug repetition of words that we’re no longer reaching my heart and my mind. I picked up on many contradictions, paradoxes but I could not put into adequate and objective words. In the end I was no longer listening to what was being said at the KH meetings as I knew deep in my heart that it was not the truth but like brother Ray Franz but “traditions of men”. (Watchtower did not reach my heart as it was common to say with the JW). Had I read the writings of Ray Franz, Peter Gregerson, Don Cameron or Barbara Henderson I WOULD NEVER HAD GOT BAPTISED. Obsiously I couldn’t as their writtings were released after i had left the organisation in 1996.

    In the meantime, I have lost my childhood, I did not have the chance to get to know my mother during all my youth since I was 2, I have and am still going through therapy to re-construct myself hoping one day, my parents will wake up to this JW scam or at the least try to be more human towards me.

  12. So sorry to hear of your experiences dimbo2014. This is similar to many that I have heard of and so glad that both of my daughters got out of captivity as well as the oldest Son In Law. He still has family in the cult, but they at least still talk to him, even though his Father is an Elder.

    The whole process of indoctrination is very similar to the Nazi and Communist propaganda and enters the ‘limbic’ system of the thalamus and is stored just like a hard drive or flash drive of a computer. That is why it difficult to break off the guilt and fear that is weaved into our brains.

    Many find it very difficult to enter into normal society and start to unravel the indoctrinated ‘worldly’ ideology. Last week, my wife and I were invited to a Greek Orthodox Wedding here in Cyprus and when I entered the Church I actually did the sign of the cross across my chest in respect of the occasion and that Jesus Christ is in these arrangements, despite what the WT drones say. We had a lovely experience and we both agreed it was the best wedding we had ever been too. This would have been unthinkable 12-15 years ago.

    As my wife and I have studied Complementary Medicine we have delved into the endocrine system and understand how deep seated emotional trauma as children can affect us. The limbic stores everything and that is why certain events bring back the pain and bad memories of our early life.

    We have written a book entitled ‘Keys To Unlocking the Wombs & Tombs in Your Life’ and it deals with much of the cult mind and how to get free from a Christian point of view. As we still accept the Bible as Gods word, we have learnt that we are saved by a loving God, not a Bully who takes down everything and stores it to use against us.

    May you dear ones have peace and the love you deserve


  13. I’m so sorry that you had to experience that kind of mental and emotional stress. I am a person dealing with anxiety and my family is the reason why I am able to cope with it, so I can only imagine how painful it is for you to have your family taken away. and when you feel isolated that’s the time that your mental health worsen. I’m glad you found a group that helped you feel that you are not alone, having the support of other people is one of the strongest way to help someone deal with his mental condition. I know that you will only get better from here, i wish you all the best.

    – Abby.

  14. Please may i ask, what is the mental damage that people are suffering & why??
    I left a religion a very long time ago that i went to & when i left there were no problems at all. A few people i know have left their different religions, even from being children and they are fine. It’s nothing.
    I know of people who have left some real terrible cults that had vice-like grips on them, but shortly after they were fine. It didn’t take ages, constant councelling or re-programming nor did they need the recovery spoken of on here.
    So, i don’t understand and was just wondering.

  15. I live in the United States and two JW one man and woman came to my neighborhood to distribute booklets and to get people to convert. I opened the door and these two people gave me the booklet and I talked to them and they automatically knew I belong in another religion that is not Christianity. At first, these two people appear friendly, but when I told them my family members and I are happily in our religion and all they turned defensive towards me. The woman especially defensive said that why is that the bible says that “Jesus only leads to the truth” and my response that all religions lead to truth. I told her that God is the tree and the different branches are the different religions in the world that have Holy texts. I told her she and the man never read my Holy text therefore do not know about my religion’s teachings along with other religions Holy texts. I told them that God is an incarnate who came as Man in some religions and wants people to be proactive doing good for the world through service work or using their talents, knowledge, hearts, and other gifts for the greater good which they also became defensive about that. I told them I studied about other religions and their religions also lead to the Truth which is God. I stood firm with my belief and I remember telling God in my mind that he needs to intervene to help these people and others caught in the lies of JW. I did not enjoy speaking with them and found them rude and intolerant. They still drop booklets at my home and always ask my parents if I am home because they know I am firm in my beliefs. I didn’t know what JW was, but I knew from the start as a child hearing stories about them that they are not a branch of Christianity or part of world’s religions. I didn’t know much about them and just few days ago I watched a Youtube videos about ex JW and those people who educate people what JW truly are and they are not Godly people. The Ephesians 2 Ministry Jehovah Witness 101 on Youtube has several parts that discusses in detail about the dark side of JW. All the videos were very informative that JW is a cult to the core. There is no Christ, God, or anything God like in JW, but an organization using a religion Christianity verses to manipulate into their own versions to have power, control, monitor, abuse people, make money, and lie so that upper management of the organization can enjoy deceiving people and getting what they want from these JW followers. JW does not believe in people having relationship with the God and mankind. They do not want people to experience love and do positive services for animals, nature, God, and other people, but to cut off ties from all who are not JW. In my religion, God spoke against deceivers who use his name, teachings, and such to promote evil and God does say it’s a sin against him because these deceivers do what they can to cut man from God and his creation. JW is a cult and that’s the truth.

  16. ”You’ll never get sick. You will never grow old. And you will never die.”

    Although the above words come from the movie “Cocoon,” they could have come
    from the Watchtower Society because this is the same thing they have been proclaiming for decades as part of “the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world that is about to replace the present wicked, lawless system of things.”

    This very appealing prospect attracts many people to begin to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. It then sustains them as they eagerly wait for the fulfillment of this promise.

    But during the course of their study they get drawn into an illusionary concept involving the Watchtower organization that gradually takes over their decision-making process and even their conscience without them realizing it. It happens because of a mistake that everyone makes before they decide to become a Jehovah’s Witness.

    “Captives of a Concept” identifies both the concept and the mistake that causes people to become captives of it. The book also offers a few suggestions about how to help Jehovah’s Witnesses correct their mistake and teach themselves the truth about their religion.

    The book is designed to help the reader understand the illusionary concept mentioned by former Governing Body member Raymond Franz in his “Crisis of Conscience,” which holds Jehovah’s Witnesses captive by dominating and controlling how they think and act without them realizing it..

    It explains how the leadership has been able to keep themselves (apparently) and millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses convinced that “the Watchtower Society is God’s organization no matter what the Bible says or what went on in the organization’s history.

    Additional information:

  17. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Miller’s book comments on spirituality’s benefits to mental health. Ones personal relationship with God of most importance. Spirituality is personally important, regardless of ones specific religious traditions. Spiritual heart can be cultivated helped … by family or nature.
    God helps those who knock, ask, seek Truth, Justice, Righteousness, Peace. Love God and our neigbor as ourselves. “Do NO HARM” Thank you all for your insightful and valuable input.

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