Religious delusions common among schizophrenics

Patients with schizophrenia often suffer from religious delusions, especially in the United States, which has a higher rate of religious belief in the general population than many other industrialized countries.

Studies of hospitalized patients with schizophrenia show 36 percent suffer from religious delusions in America, compared to 24 percent in Britain, 21 percent in Germany and 7 percent in Japan.

In Egypt, the prevalence of religious delusions fluctuated over 20 years and was linked to changes in how much Islam was emphasized in the country.

The studies reveal culture can have a powerful influence on the types of delusions and hallucinations people experience.

Hallucinations are perceptions of things that are not actually there. Delusions are persistent false beliefs a person holds despite evidence or what almost everyone else believes.

Pedro Sabalsa-Mendez told police he murdered Avi Feldman on Nov. 6, 2016, in Ashland because he believed Feldman was taking part in a scheme to crucify his soul. Before the murder, Sabalsa-Mendez told people he cut his face and body in an attempt to get rid of demons.

Sabalsa-Mendez, who is schizophrenic, also had a delusion he worked for the CIA and was on a mission to kill Feldman.

People suffering from bipolar disorder can experience religious delusions as well.

In 2015, Jason Coburn allegedly walked into a Medford hotel, told people he was Jesus Christ and ordered them to bow down before him or be killed. He was arrested and jailed.

Tania Foster’s son has struggled with the belief he is a prophet and can heal people. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he has had at least 20 short-term psychiatric hospitalizations in the Rogue Valley and around the state. She asked that his name not be used.

Researchers have found that religious delusions are more likely — and more severe — in people with mental illness who are highly religious.

It might be because they have greater knowledge about religion, which then shapes and gives meaning to their delusions and hallucinations, researchers surmise.

The situation could be similar to a combat veteran who has nightmares about war, or an assembly line worker who dreams about falling behind on the job.

For patients who aren’t religious, they may be more likely to have auditory hallucinations that are expressed as the voices of family members. They may have delusions they are being persecuted by the government, rather than the devil or demons, some researchers believe.

Like other types of delusions, religious delusions can lead to violence against the self and others.

People have committed homicides while experiencing religious delusions.

Some have taken statements literally from the Bible and plucked out an offending eye, or performed self-castration. Antichrist delusions also have led to violence. Others have attempted or completed suicide to join God in heaven, according to published case studies.

While many researchers point to cultural beliefs about religion shaping delusions, some research also has shown people with schizophrenia may be naturally drawn to religion. Adopted children of biological parents with schizophrenia tend to be more religious, according to one study.

Powerful, transcendent spiritual experiences can be triggered by micro-seizures in the brain, as well as drugs like LSD, leading many researchers to believe brain activity and brain chemistry can influence religious beliefs in some people.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are linked to imbalances in chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters.

Some researchers say religious beliefs can be positive for people with chronic, severe mental illness.

People with schizophrenia often also struggle with substance abuse, with addictive substances usually worsening psychosis. Many religions frown on the use of drugs and alcohol, which can motivate religious patients to avoid addictive substances, researchers point out.

Patients can have a sense of community and belonging through church if the congregation is welcoming and hospitable to people with mental illness. Patients can also gain comfort and a sense of self worth from feeling a higher power watches over them and loves them, researchers say.

Cultural changes are continuing to mold delusions and hallucinations.

These days, some people believe they are the unwilling subjects of reality shows.

In 2014, Joel Gold and Ian Gold published the book “Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness: The Truman Show Delusion and Other Strange Beliefs.”

Patients have described experiences similar to "The Truman Show," a 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey in which his character's life is secretly filmed and then televised for an audience of millions.

While many patients with schizophrenia are prone to religious delusions, the disease also afflicts more men than women.

For every two women with schizophrenia, three men have the disease, according to research estimates.

Schizophrenia also attacks men earlier, with the average age of onset for males in the late teens and early 20s, and the late 20s and early 30s for women, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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