The stigma of mental illness in Pagan and metaphysical communities

I don’t usually double-post my YouTube videos to my blog, but I thought this one may be valuable to the people who keep googling wicca and depression and ending up here.  Clearly, there aren’t enough people talking about this sort of thing.  I see the subject of mental illness and the notion of the “proper person” rear up periodically online, usually clouded by a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and judgment from people who don’t really know much about it.

The reality is that bazillions of people live with depression, described personality disorders, PTSD, anxiety, and all kinds of mental health concerns.  For most of us, you’d never know it.  In fact, often the only difference between us and a lot of “normal” people is that we’ve acknowledged our problems and are seeking treatment.  It both saddens and angers me to hear about covens actively excluding people who are in psychotherapy, who take anti-depressants, or who have particular diagnoses, under the blanket assumption that everyone who struggles with mental health is unfit for coven work or somehow otherwise not a fully-functioning human being.  It’s one thing for a coven leader to be unprepared to deal with the problems of a particular individual (I’m not trying to downplay the severity of certain conditions or suggest that everyone should get a free pass), but quite another to assume that everyone in therapy or on an SSRI isn’t “stable” or “healthy” enough for Craft.

In the above video, I talk a little bit about my own treatment history, the stigma attached to mental illness in Wicca/Pagan/metaphysical communities, and touch on the relationship between mental illness and magic.

5 thoughts on “The stigma of mental illness in Pagan and metaphysical communities

  1. Sorry it took me so long to respond to this, my computer was in need of a new operating system and I haven’t really spent much time online. First, as you say in your video, there will be no sympathy offered here – just admiration for someone brave enough and open enough to discuss such a sensitive matter publicly.

    I have observed basically the same thing over the years, that there are quite a few people in Paganism who seem almost afraid of mental illness, or those who have it. This reaction is confusing to me at times, as we understand the brain to be an organ, just like any other; and as such capable of sustaining illness and injury just like any other body part. I’ve often thought that perhaps one reason for this phobic reaction has to do with fear of what mainstream ‘outsiders’ might think of the religion itself. I dislike this thought, as it suggests to me that there are a lot of insecure people who are embracing Paganism more for the image than for the religion itself; but it’s a thought that crosses my mind, just the same.

    The ‘mainstream’ does not really embrace diversity. I think this tendency might have a lot to do with why our society seems to be getting collectively more and more ill. As a Pagan, as a Druid, as someone who has fully and actively embraced Nature in all its forms, I think diversity and differences should be respected. Just because the mainstream might have phobias about diversity is no reason to engage in the same kind of behavior.

    People who are mentally ill, who are doing what they can to manage that illness, whether it be with the intent of healing or simply managing, are just as magic(k)al as anyone else. They, and often their families, need religious support just like anyone else. They have as much right to access the gods and Nature as anyone else. A ‘religious’ person, who would try to deny religious support to someone based on this criteria, needs to spend some serious time in contemplation of what religion really is; and might benefit from spending a little time consulting a qualified psychotherapist, as well.

    Thorn, it’s nice to know that you are doing well, and that you’ve gotten yourself to a better place: I hope you’ll stay that way!

    1. Chris Mann

      “I’ve often thought that perhaps one reason for this phobic reaction has to do with fear of what mainstream ‘outsiders’ might think of the religion itself.”

      I have been thinking something similar myself. I wonder if they are thinking ‘Other people already think we’re crazy. If we let someone in with a mental illness, other people are going to think this proves them right.’

  2. Well, from an insider’s point of view, I’ve found that mental illness has created some barrier between myself and the world (Pagan or not) simply because I’m usually an introvert, up until the past year I hadn’t sought the company of others (friendship or otherwise), I isolate when depressed or having a moment and this wreaks havoc on friendships if they don’t understand, if they don’t simply ask me what the hell is wrong, or if I don’t communicate accordingly, and I’ve been told I’m (and I quote) “intimidating, standoffish, and it seems like I just don’t like people.” Which, may or may not be true. I can say I do not set out to be intimidating or standoffish, but as for the people… I don’t do ignorance well, although I’m trying extremely hard to be patient. It’s extremely difficult to explain mental illness to people who otherwise have no education about it and aren’t genuinely interested in learning about it for anyone’s benefit.

    Anyway, as for group settings, if it is a small group I tend to do well, but with larger groups I tend to get lost in the mix somehow, and ultimately prefer to just sit back and watch. A lot of times people have avoided me for leadership roles or inclusion in ongoing activities because they have focused on the symptomatology of mental illness and not the reality of it. I’ve heard more often than not that the general opinion is people with mental illness are “faking it for attention, lazy, never complete anything they start, sleep all the time…” and so on. I just shake my head and move on.

    The symptoms of mental illness are easy to find basic info on, as I’m sure you well know, but it’s like reading about being an astronaut I guess. You have no clue until you’re standing on the moon, which one would not do every day, even as an astronaut, just like one isn’t dealing with symptoms of mental illness every moment of every day. I think it is just that everyone knows it exists, but they don’t know what it’s like to live with it and they’d rather just avoid it all together. I do know dealing with someone with mental illness can be exhausting. I mean, I exhaust myself sometimes, and have dealt with someone who had extreme issues (untreated) and I almost didn’t survive that myself, but I think for the most part, one just has to understand what they’re dealing with, be ready to openly discuss it and learn about it, and not to take it personally if symptoms do arise during the course of the relationship, whatever that relationship may be.

    I am usually up front about my tendency to isolate or to be quiet instead of voicing my feelings. I’m not an aggressive friend as far as inviting, initiating contact, etc, and I communicate this in the beginning, and usually apologize frequently for my lack of attention giving in any relationship. Awareness is key to a lot of the symptomatology. In work settings, I’m quiet and just go with the flow and deal with shit on my own. I haven’t been a part of a coven yet, but I would assume this would be part family, part friendship, and part working relationship, and part student/teacher relationship. In all four of those settings I’ve felt intimidated and others noticed yet didn’t ask me directly what was up, instead preferring to talk about it without me and to make jokes or whatever. I just ignore it and chalk it up to ignorance. I’ve learned to at least speak up now, even though at times it’s excruciating to do so.

    But, there’s a flip side to all of this too I guess. A lot of people with mental illness are either in denial, not really aware that they’re being delusional in the worst case scenario, aren’t willing to talk about it or let others in to see the reality of it, etc. A LOT of people with mental illness have a fear of rejection in some form or another. So, as with anything, I guess it’s a two-way street and I applaud you for opening up about it publicly. My feelings on being shut out or avoided for mental illness closely resemble yours, I think, although at times I’ve almost felt relieved because it used to be pretty hard work to deal with people in general and I knew it was a huge task before me to be a part of something and participate and not screw it up because some days I just could NOT get out of bed. That was several years ago, and now, I’ve pretty much got it all under control, but I would have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I wanted so much to be a part of the world, but was terrified at the same time, almost hopeful they’d just ignore me, sometimes even sabotaging it before they got the chance to reject me, and then even being upset when it never panned out regardless. Strange how the mind works sometimes 🙂

    Pagans rejecting people with mental illness, to me, is no different than the church rejecting me, or school, or work, or friends, or anyone for that matter. I’ve found more people with mental illness in the Pagan and Christian communities than I have anywhere else. As far as my experience with the Pagan community – they sought inclusion, acceptance, and didn’t want to be told what to do. Freedom-seekers not wanting to be punished for sins. The solitary or eclectic path appealed to them, where they could pretty much make it up as they went and rejected those who didn’t agree with them. As for my experience with the Christian community – they sought unconditional love even though they felt “unlovable and hopeless.” They were seeking healing etc. Those that didn’t reject me as a person, rejected the mental illness, decided themselves to become doctors or therapists and told me I was still depressed or still self-harming because I wasn’t trusting in God to heal me. My faith was weak or whatever. (This is just MY experience and is not a stereotype). I have met amazing people in both Pagan and Christian communities that do not fit the above example at all. Also, my experience within the Pagan community was mostly in my teenage years with other inexperienced teenagers, and that certainly had something to do with the view. We were all depressed I think.

    Anyway, just my two cents worth. I would have to say if people rejected me now I wouldn’t care, as I’ve grown quite a tough skin, and I’d just move on and find people that didn’t. I’ve had some pretty amazing friendships with those that hung around through it all, so maybe those that are rejecting are missing out!

  3. Sunna

    I just stumbled across your blog, and, you are amazing! While I realize that this post / video is several years old, I was wondering if you have any more specific thoughts on a pagan leader’s role when dealing with the problems of a particular individual (who is extremely bi-polar and unable to set clear boundaries with either with the members of our group or the spiritual world). I receive frequent calls that she isn’t able to stay in her body (despite my recommendations, and requests that she discuss this with her doctor); she calls other members of the group and complains that I don’t like her (I treat her the same as everyone else); her partner, also part of the group, has involved me in his arguments with her and we’re all going down in flames. I have read Antagonists in the Church and while that has been helpful, I am pulling my hair out here, because while I am trying to be compassionate about her mental illness, it is definitely affecting my ability to do my job as leader of the group and the morale of the group as a whole is suffering. The work of the group and overall esoteric training is at a complete standstill because of this one individual. We frequently engage in trance work and have stopped because we don’t want to create an issue for this one person and we didn’t want to exclude her. (However, we are rethinking this – because it has changed what the group does and no one is happy with it.) Where do I draw the line and how to I regain control? I really appreciate any insight that you can provide or any resources that you can recommend.

Say words at me.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s