A few years ago a Pagan teacher of mine gave me a very interesting writing prompt. “Mental Illness in the Pagan Community,” During that time, I was unsure how to respond to the literary challenge of writing about a sensitive topic that affects so many of us in our spiritual hamlet. It was a time when I had very different views on the process of identifying and how to even begin treating my own struggles with my mental health. I am by no means a licensed therapist or anyone qualified to diagnose or treat mental illness. Please understand that this article is only a commentary and is not intended to replace the functionality of a professional.
So let’s define for ourselves the term “Mental Illness” because the Pagan application is different than the mundane context. According to the Mayo Healthcare System the official definition for mental illness is as follows:
Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time.
Now that leaves a wide range of thoughts free to the Pagan mind to digest. Consider for a moment the following ideas and how they are received by non-Pagan folk. Contemplate for just a moment the following popular concepts of our belief system:
- Spiritual fasting – Fasting or abstaining from eating for the observance of certain holidays, rituals and spell work can go on for days or even weeks depending on the circumstances. Diabetics, for instance can not go long periods of time without ingesting food. Severe physical detriment up to and including diabetic coma or ketosis (a kind of kidney failure that is the result of a diet low in Carbohydrates) can occur.
- Past lives – As Pagans, we have no physical proof that past lives are a real and valid thing. Many spiritually-minded people subscribe to the idea that this is not the only life we can contribute towards and that our actions in this life affect much more than just ourselves. This can very well be interpreted by non-spiritual people as a kind of hallucination or escapism from the reality that is known as our current life. This can be made worse by the fact that those who practice divination and past life regression charge for their work. While there is nothing wrong with this concept, it can appear shady to those who are suspicious of our beliefs.
- Spirit guides – The concept that we are guided by unseen spirits or “familiars” may be interpreted as a form of schizophrenia. Talking aloud to intangible beings can be disturbing even for Pagan folk who do not subscribe to such beliefs. It doesn’t of course disprove or invalidate the existence of such beings but it can raise questions in certain circles as to the health and wellbeing of those who make the presence of such entities known.
- Visions, dreams and prophecies – Once regarded as a valuable asset to the tribe, Oracles of yore were believed to have predicted major events such as weather, battles and times of famine or feast. Oracles are still an accepted part of Pagan culture but to the rest of humanity, they’re little more than an interesting plot device in an action movie based on Greek warriors. The ability to see into the past or present is a hot topic issue even in Pagan circles as the conflicting notion of “the future is set in stone” and “we are able to change the course based on our will” is something that science can yet deem provable.
But what about the issues that face the Pagan community such as inherent mental illness such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression, anxiety, borderline personality and a host of other conditions that are now far too many to name individually? Even articulating the common perceptions about mental illness can be a very personal and controversial affair in discussion circles. It must be met with an open mind, a compassionate heart and the ability to look past the prejudice that can be sometimes associated with the beliefs involved.
As a whole the Pagans are desperately trying to reclaim so much of our history and culture and even brainstorming radical new motions to meet with the flow of modern times. How do we keep our culture free from the perception that spirit guides and intangible beings can give us messages and signs that can sometimes alter the course of our destinies without looking like we could be possibly suicidal or riddled with some ailment that is treatable with pills? Paganism to be taken seriously in this world and to form a different world view must collectively ask it’s self these questions and many more that are unlisted.
It’s also good to keep in mind that there are many legitimate treatments for mental illness that can incorporate the medicinal values of our ancestors. It’s important to go over those herbal supplements and alternative methods with a licensed and reputable healthcare practitioner that values the spiritual beliefs of their patients. If you feel uncomfortable with your current medical doctor, a good resource for you might be the AANP or American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. They can also put you in touch with trained therapists and psychologists who will understand the Pagan attitude towards sexuality, medicine, spiritual beliefs and a slurry of other cultural values that differ from the mundane.
What are your thoughts on mental illness and how it applies to Paganism in contemporary culture? Please comment below! I’d love to have some healthy debate. Thank you for reading along and all of the support you’ve given this blog. It helps motivate me to write more articles that are relevant to the interests and challenges faced by our culture.