Mental health and Paganism

People often wonder how mental health issues fit with Paganism and ritual and magical groups. There isn’t an easy answer here, but this article will help explain some of the things to consider and know about.

I should note that I am not a trained mental health professional, and you should consult with appropriate professionals for treatment and management. However, I do have experience working in Pagan group settings both with people with long-term mental health needs, and with people who are trained professionals in the field.

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What things should you be thinking about?

The first big thing to remember is that just like physical health issues, mental health issues exist on a spectrum. Some are things that take careful management, but if you do that, things are pretty stable most of the time. Others can be very unpredictable, where your day to day experience can vary a lot over a short period of time. These are a lot harder to manage.

Two things are different about mental health issues. One is that it can be a lot harder in some cases to get treatment, especially for long-term needs (due to stigma or access to care.)

The other is that because some conditions affect how you think and experience the world, they can affect how you interact with people (and other beings), and in some cases how you make decisions (especially things like long-term choices). Obviously, that’s got some implications for religious practice.

Some people also have mental health symptoms or conditions that are directly affected by religious practice, like scrupulosity.

Check out medical issues

Before starting out on more intensive ritual or magical practice, it’s a good idea to start by building self-awareness, and looking at how things are currently going in your life. Looking at your mental and physical health is a great place to start.

Many symptoms can affect our minds, but be caused by very physical things. Some people find that they have vitamin deficiencies that affect mental health (usually it’s not the whole of the problem but treating the deficiency makes it easier to treat the other things.) Lots of people who live in the northern US notice greater depression, agitation, or inability to concentrate and focus in the winter due to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Effects of medication

Speaking of medication, rather a lot of things can affect how our brains work. Sometimes that’s intentional (we take a med to help with something). Sometimes it’s not.

Personally, I err on the conservative side of the recommendations I’m going to make below (in the ‘what are some good ways to handle this’) about making big decisions or commitments (including magical or ritual ones) when I’m trying new meds.

If you’ve started a new medication in the past 3-6 months, sometimes the psychological side effects take a while to build up in your system, or may be more noticeable in some seasons than in others, so it’s worth doing this check in regularly, because things may change for you over time.

(I’ve recently tried a medication that caused me a much larger than usual amount of anxiety – fortunately it was something I could discontinue. Because I was paying attention, it only took me a week from ‘that’s not like me’ to ‘no, pretty sure it’s the med’.)

Of course, meds for mental health reasons can also have other side effects – or they can not work as well as we hoped. It’s pretty common to need to try a couple of options to find things that work best for you (in collaboration with the appropriate professionals.)

Are ritual practices dangerous?

One discussion I’ve heard is whether it’s safe to do magic if you have mental health issues. My take is that it’s like having physical health limitations – some things may be okay, but others may be a lot more risky for you than for someone else. It’s up to you to be responsible and make good choices about what you will and won’t do. (Why is it up to you? Because you have the most expertise in being you, and because no one else is going to do this for you, even though they might help sometimes.)

Some conditions are more about your brain telling you things that aren’t actually true – like depression and anxiety. In these cases, you’re probably more likely to do less than you can actually do well rather than take excessive risks. Having a trusted friend or resource who can help you look at specific plans can be a big help.

Other conditions, however, can play with how you experience the world in big ways. If you already have problems with disassociation, then some specific practices like trance work that significantly takes you away from your body or Drawing Down might not be a good choice (or be something you do only in situations where there’s a skilled person who is comfortable helping with that.) If you have problems with obsessive compulsive reactions or scrupulosity, some kinds of very precise magical work may be a bad fit for you.

If you are prone to hallucinations or not being able to judge what’s going on around you accurately, then relying on information you get in those experiences (even if it appears to come from a deity or trusted being) probably isn’t a good idea – you want to run it through your common sense and trusted friends first.

On the other hand, a lot of these practices are a good idea for everyone – even people with no particular mental or physical health concerns.

Are you reasonably functional in daily life?

One good way to judge things is to look at how well you’re functioning in daily life. If you’re managing your own needs, are working or going to school or getting the other stuff you do done, then you are probably in decent shape to consider adding magical and ritual practices or trying new things.

If those things aren’t true – if you’re struggling to get out of bed, take care of your body, do the things you need to – then you want to not make that more complicated right now. In this case, follow the tips in the next section about low-risk practices, and focus on the ones that work more easily for you rather than pushing to learn new skills or deal with challenges learning a new thing most of the time.

When you feel like you can add things, then you can expand your practice, but doing simpler things reliably is also a really good learning technique I advise for everyone.

What are some good ways to handle this?

I can’t tell you what to do – but here are some suggestions that I follow myself due to physical health issues, and that work pretty well for other kinds of issues.

Be self aware

If you know you have ongoing issues, it’s a really good idea to find some way to keep a record to help you to notice patterns or tendencies (or that things have been steadily getting worse for a bit).

There are tons of apps out there now that will help with this. I track some physical health things in a spreadsheet. Some people build it into daily or regular journalling. Find a thing that works for you and your needs.

This also helps a great deal if you need to seek out professional help (or talk to a new specialist) – being able to say “This was a problem X out of Y days” can be really helpful in conveying how much something is affecting your life.

Another part of self-awareness is learning more about your specific conditions. Getting health information on the internet can be tricky (especially from online groups for conditions) but they can also be helpful resources about what to expect, what might help, and coping skills or techniques.

There are lots of things in our lives that may be more of an issue at some times than others. People who menstruate often have stronger emotional reactions at a particular point in their cycle (or in some cases, even upsetting ones), but all of our bodies have a lot of things going on that can work in cycles of different lengths. Many people experience differences based on season, other events in their lives (like the school year or other schedule shifts), or how much sleep they’re getting. Tracking things over time can help you spot important patterns.

Focus on lower-risk practices

Some practices inherently have more risks of something going weird than others. If you’re not sure how things are going for you right now in general, stick to the ones that work better.

For example, core practices you’ve done a lot are probably fine (as long as they still feel useful to you), like breathing, centering, grounding, and shielding work, or basic devotional practices. If you’re new to these things, start small with them, and give yourself space between adding new things. I usually aim to have something feel fairly comfortable before I add a new piece, which often means doing it 10-15 times successfully over a period of a couple of weeks.

Some kinds of meditation might be fine, but this might not be a good time to start or focus on more expansive pathworking meditations where you deliberately seek out different beings or experiences. (Sometimes it can be fine! Sometimes it can throw a big wrench into your understanding of your self and what you’re doing.)

And as a rule, I’d avoid being the person responsible for higher intensity ritual events (leading a complex ritual, drawing down or possessory work, extended trance work, etc.) without having other people you’re working with who you can talk through things with, and who can provide support for the ritual space and work. This is the kind of thing that can take years to develop, and it may not be an option for you for all sorts of reasons.

Try new things slowly

If your health issues aren’t pretty stable and understood, be cautious about trying big new things. This probably isn’t a great time to throw yourself into finding a new group, going to lots of open rituals, diving deeply into a complex new ritual practice, or other things like that.

It’s a lot better to try things slowly, and space them out, so you can understand how they affect you. Do a thing that lasts an hour or three (and that you can leave easily) rather than something that’s all day or all weekend. If you do try out a weekend-long event, can you set it up so you have a quiet space you control (like a hotel room) to retreat to when you need to?

If you want to go to a public event, look for one that may be an easier option for you (due to location, focus, what you can learn about it in advance) and give yourself some space to see how you feel after before you go to another. Pay attention to how you feel right after – but also after the next few days or couple of weeks.

The same goes for new practices. When my life has been more complicated, I’ve done something similar to a common piece of frugality advice, the one that says if you want to buy something over a certain dollar amount (you pick that based on your budget), or that’s not a needed purchase, you wait a number of days (a week, two weeks, a month) before you buy it.

You can apply the same thing to a new ritual practice. Spreading it out will help you decide if it’s something you really want to pursue or something that you latched onto for a reason that may not be in your best interest. Sometimes having a set thing you do can help you make choices when you’re getting emotionally pulled by an idea or concept.

Build up some trusted people to ask

When I know I’m possibly off-kilter due to medical reasons, I turn to a couple of friends who I can trust to help me talk through specific things, and tell me if I’m missing something or taking risks or otherwise messing something up.

It can take time to find these people – especially if you want to talk about magical or ritual practices in specific – but it’s worth the effort. People don’t necessarily need to know the path or practice you’re talking about, just be able to help you sort through the pieces.

Talking to a therapist or other mental health professional about religious practices can be complex – many of them are not terribly familiar with Paganism or common practices (and may be concerned that some practices will worsen a particular condition.)

Obviously, this is a judgement call you’ll have to make, but it’s often possible to figure out how to talk about specific pieces either in widely understood terms (meditation, for example) or asking about situations without going into much detail about the religious context. (“I’ve been having vivid dreams about particular situations – are there things I should pay attention for that might be a concern?” with an example of an experience that doesn’t require too much religious explanation.)

In a group context

The last part of this is talking about it in a group context. Obviously, how we think and feel and interact with the world has a big impact when we’re working in a group or thinking about it.

The first thing you should know is that groups have a wide range of approaches to mental health issues. Some groups won’t accept anyone who has diagnosed mental health issues (they’re pretty rare these days.) I’ve seen a few groups who actually require everyone past a certain point to see a therapist for a bit.

Most commonly, groups will want to know before you approach them for training or more intensive work that you have any conditions reasonably stable, and they may ask questions about what that means and how it’s working for you.

My rule for my group for students is that conditions need to have been reasonably stable for the previous six months (you haven’t made major medication or treatment changes, etc.) and you need be able to get access to appropriate professionals. Sometimes training or ritual experiences can bring up things that need professional help. If something comes up after someone’s already a member of the group, then we figure out what makes sense, which might be continuing but with some attention to the relevant area, or taking things more slowly.

Group leaders (and existing members) may also have personal history that makes them more or less comfortable with specific conditions or behaviours associated with specific diagnoses.

There are certainly some things out there where I don’t trust myself to handle them well because of experiences (with an ex, in my case). I might be okay with it in a stable established group with other people who had different experiences to draw on, but I’m less comfortable taking it on in a new group or one where I was the only established initiate making decisions (as is the case as I write this…)

Many groups will ask you to disclose health issues (including mental health) as part of the application process, usually after you’ve had a chance to meet people in the group and get to know them a little. This is partly because so many events are held at private homes, and people want to know what to do if something goes wrong or you need extra help.

Added July 27, 2018

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