This month I launched a counselling service for ex Jehovah's Witnesses.
It's something I have been thinking about doing for a long time and I think what finally convinced me to go ahead with it was the reaction I heard from other people in the mental health profession, who were confused as to why a specialist counselling service for ex Jehovah's Witnesses is even necessary.
For most people, their knowledge of JW's is pretty basic. They're the ones that knock on your door, don't celebrate Christmas and birthdays and they don't allow blood to be used in operations, or after serious accidents, even if it's a matter of life and death. This is true but it forms a tiny part of what the organisation preaches and if you dig a little deeper you will likely find some disturbing information about their practices.
I could write pages about instances of reports of child abuse cover-ups in the Jehovah's Witness organisation all over the world, particularly those uncovered by the Australian Royal Commission. You could read more on this here.
However, the main reason I decided to offer specialist ex Jehovah's Witness counselling is due to one of the practices that the JW organisation encourage in it's members.
That of shunning.
To try to briefly set the scene, when a person is a Jehovah's Witness, the organisation exerts huge control over them, particularly if they were born in to the religion. From the earliest age they are indoctrinated with the message that they are the only true religion and that an imminent catastrophic event called 'Armageddon' is coming, which will wipe out the billions of human
beings that are not JW's. Only the JW's will survive and eventually they will end up in 'The Paradise' where the earth is populated only by Jehovah's Witnesses, past and present. (there is a lot more in the doctrine when it comes to getting from Armageddon to The Paradise but for the purposes of this post it's a good overview).
Because only Jehovah's Witnesses will survive Armageddon, which, remember, is said to be coming any day now, the JW members feel compelled to do all they are told in order to maintain their place within the organisation. This means that the men in charge, called the Governing Body, exert significant control over all the organisation's members. A Jehovah's Witness life is one of obedience. They are told what to wear, how to speak, who they can and cannot mix with socially and how to spend their time in order to be considered a dedicated Jehovah's Witness. This is not a 'go to church once a week' type of religion. This is full time, high cost and high control.
So, what does this have to do with shunning? Well, if you were a practicing Jehovah's Witness and then find yourself outside of the religion, either through choice or by being expelled (called 'disfellowshipping'), current Jehovah's Witnesses are instructed to shun you. To have nothing to do with you, not even a 'hello'. To not mix with you, talk to you, or even acknowledge you in the street. The cruellest and often most unimaginable aspect of this practice is that in most cases this means a person is being shunned by their own family and friends. In fact it is likely to be their entire support network. Parents are shunning their own children, children are shunning their own parents, siblings are shunning their siblings.
Just stop and think about that for a moment. Try to imagine what it would be like if everyone you know, family and closest friends, literally overnight, started denying your very existence.
This is the very real trauma that tens of thousands of people in the UK alone are living with right now. And remember, as a Jehovah's Witness you were discouraged from making acquaintances with people outside of your religion (these are called 'worldly' people) and so you can have literally nobody to talk to because everyone you know is actively shunning you.
So why do the Jehovah's Witnesses do this? Why do they agree to follow this barbaric instruction? Why don't they just say 'no' and keep in touch with that person? Well firstly, if they were found to be mixing with these people they risk being disfellowshipped themselves, which would then lead to them suffering the same shunning from their own family and friends. Secondly, they are told by their Governing Body that the best way to convince this person to return to the JW's is to shun them, which will leave that person no choice but to return to the fold. And don't forget, when Armageddon comes it's only the Jehovah's Witnesses that will be spared so the people doing the shunning absolutely believe they are doing the right thing. They believe they are saving them from certain death.
Shunning is an intensely cruel punishment for a human being, who is, at his root, a social animal. Experiments using fMRI scans have shown that the part of the brain that responds to being shunned or ignored is the same part of the brain that reacts when a person feels physical pain. So when people that are shunned report that it feels painful, they are absolutely right. You could read more on this here.
I mentioned earlier that a person could find themselves outside of the religion either by choice or being expelled (disfellowshipped).
Therefore, a person could get to a stage of their life where they look at their Jehovah's Witness life and feel that maybe it's not for them anymore. Perhaps they are questioning some of the rules or doctrine and decide they don't want to go to the weekly meetings or do any of the other things involved in being a good JW. Official Jehovah's Witness literature will say that this is absolutely fine and you can walk away any time without suffering any kind of backlash. However, the reality is that the JW congregations will be instructed to shun this person. So just because a person decides they don't fully believe the doctrine any more, they lose their family, friends and entire support network. It takes a brave person to take that step, knowing what punishment is in store.
However, what can be even worse is being outside the JW's as a result of being disfellowshipped. You may still believe in the whole doctrine and that Armageddon is coming but have transgressed in some way that has warranted expulsion from the organisation.
Here are just a few of the reasons why a Jehovah's Witness can find themselves disfellowshipped.
Smoking of any kind (tobacco and illegal substances)
Sex outside of/before marriage
Having a blood transfusion
Associating with disfellowshipped persons
Disagreement with doctrine (apostasy)
So here is what this means.
If you agreed to accepting a blood transfusion during a life saving operation you would find yourself disfellowshipped and lose everyone in your life.
If you are caught smoking a cigarette, you can lose your entire family and support network.
Being seen socialising or just being compassionate towards a disfellowshipped person can result in the loss of everyone you love.
When you stop and think about all this, you start to get a picture of why it is so important for there to be a specialised counselling service for ex Jehovah's Witnesses. They have lived a life that most counsellors cannot comprehend. They had beliefs that are almost impossible to understand, and they are suffering punishments that do so much damage to their mental health, for many, their life is at risk.
If an ex Jehovah's Witness finally plucks up the courage to go to counselling, the last thing they want to do is have to explain to their counsellor why they have particular thought processes and fears that are unlike most other people. You go to counselling to talk through your problems, hoping that your counsellor can understand.
By offering specialised counselling for ex Jehovah's Witnesses, my hope is that more people can get the help they need.
For more information on ex Jehovah's Witness Counselling visit www.exjwcounselling.co.uk
or call 07365115274.