A delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, held by many is a religion. —Robert T. Carroll
Five members of a religious group called One Mind Ministries are on trial in Baltimore this week for the murder of a 16 month old boy. The five include the boy’s mother, Ria Ramkissoon. According to the Washington Post, the group allegedly murdered the boy by relentlessly depriving him of food and water until he died. They believed him possessed by a demon because he refused to say “Amen” at meal times.
After the boy died, the group prayed over his body for days, expecting him to be resurrected. When he failed to be resurrected, the group packed his body in a suitcase with mothballs and eventually left him in a storage shed. That was about two years ago.
Ria Ramkissoon still expects her son to be resurrected.
The Court requested psychiatrists to evaluate Ramkissoon. Yet, oddly enough, the psychiatrists concluded she was not criminally insane:
Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her.
“She wasn’t delusional, because she was following a religion,” Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors’ psychiatric evaluation.
It seems from Silverman’s account that the psychiatrists in this case accept the notion a delusion held by one person is evidence of a mental illness, but when the same delusion is held by several people it becomes evidence of sanity. Of course, without reading the psychiatrist’s report, it is impossible to say whether Silverman is accurately characterizing their reasoning, but to believe Silverman, you must believe the psychiatrists are absurd. That may or may not be the case.
I don’t think every delusion is conclusive evidence of a mental illness. If that were true, then kids who believe in Santa Claus would qualify as ill. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suspect mental illness in the event of some delusions. A mother who believes her dead son can be resurrected by prayer might be mentally ill — especially if she still believes that after two fruitless years of praying for it.
One wonders, though, how often it’s the case that a person, who we would normally consider mentally ill, is instead considered mentally sound because their actions seem inspired by familiar religious beliefs. There was a girl in my high school who, among other things, heard voices and “spoke in tongues”. She, her friends and her family thought she was quite religious. But a couple years after high school, she was diagnosed schizophrenic. I think religion sometimes masks mental and emotional illnesses. I just wonder how often that’s the case. My hunch is many more people than we might care to believe turn to religion, rather than a psychiatrist, to treat an illness.