I had a nervous breakdown and was a day patient for 'counselling' in my local hospital. When I saw the psychiatrist I explained that I had been in a Pagan group where the High Priest had been a very bad influence and had us doing black magic. He said I was delusional and didn't believe a word. In fact I ran out of the hospital crying, I never went back.
In the past some clinicians believed that holding any degree of religious belief indicated delusion. Happily, that situation has reversed and spirituality has been recognised as being of benefit to psychiatrically ill people
- Pagans are no more or less susceptible to psychiatric illness than non-Pagans. However, since Pagan beliefs are not widely understood it is important that carers are able to differentiate between real illness and Pagan belief.
Some Pagans will have trained to become clairaudient or clairvoyant and would not welcome any attempt to block these skills. Hearing or seeing things that others can’t is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if what the person hears frightens or compels them to do something they don’t want to, then they need help.
Pagans might tell you that they are a witch or a druid, must cast a circle and invoke a Goddess and you may see this as an aspect of their illness. There is indeed a fine line between demanding that staff allow us to dress in robes and wave a wand around, and searching for some inner peace via spirituality. Many Pagans are witches, casting a circle is to create a formal space in which to raise energy and importantly, contain it. Raising energy can make a person elated and if they are ill the effect of this may be unpredictable.
- You may want to ask for help from the Spiritual Advisor or Pagan chaplain who will listen to everyone’s needs and suggest ways in which they can be fulfilled. They may be able to suggest alternatives to ritual work or work ritual with the sick person to control and direct their feelings.
Pagans understand the cycles of birth, death and rebirth which are as appropriate to psychiatric illness as they are to physical. We have myths and legends to help us through difficult times; Demeter and Persephone may be especially useful, using this archetypal experience as a mirror of our own experience. Many of us see mild psychiatric illness as a necessary part of growth. Shamanic Pagans work towards an experience of controlled stripping down to the soul in order to better understand themselves. This is usually achieved without psychoactive drugs.
- Of course, if someone is a danger to themselves or others then they need swift help but unless particular idiosyncratic beliefs are proved to be dangerous – such as a god telling a patient to self-harm - they should be respected.
If nothing else Pagan practice may be a tool to aid recovery. Paganism does not believe that we are inherently sinful, hell isn’t part of our vocabulary and we don’t feel responsible for saving anyone. We are meant to take responsibility for our actions and whilst mental illness removes some or all of that ability it can be a useful touchstone.