Pagans talk to gods and spirits, who sometimes answer. We see and interact with entities that are not human sometimes, we undertake to create magic, believing that we can change the world through will alone. We talk to animals and trees as though they were our equals. We see meaning in dreams and random events, believe that we can foretell the future, we may think ourselves psychic or able to feel the emotions of others. Pagan readers of this blog will likely be nodding.
Now take a step back, and think about the conditions that are deemed delusional and dangerous by mainstream society.
There is a very fine line between religion and insanity. There are a lot of people out there who, if they’d been supported in a pagan community would very likely never have gone to the medics over the state of their minds. I know several, one of whom has since found a shamanic path and gained some control over his life and experiences.
The medical profession does not, as a body, believe in spirit, or that the voices in your head are meaningful and need listening to. If you say that the gods are testing you, then they may see that as being a medical condition that needs fixing.
How do we know we aren’t mad? How can we be certain that our unconventional experiences, the very things that make us pagan, are not just a manifestation of mental illness? Where do we draw the lines? I recall a guy who came to an open event, convinced that people were being attacked by demons and that a war was about to start. He was very serious. I had no idea how to relate to him, could not engage with his world view, had no idea if he might actually be ill.
How do we deal with folks who already have mental health labels? Do we step away from them? Support them? Risk reinforcing ideas that are damaging them? Risk leaving in distress someone who might be able to reclaim their life with a pagan world view to help them make sense of it? There are no easy answers to this one, and every individual will prove different. It’s an issue that anyone active on the pagan scene will likely run into sooner or later though.
Way back in my college days, I minored in psychology. One of the questions that came up is how you distinguish between normal-crazy and actual crazy. Most people have foibles, things they can’t deal with, phobias, strange beliefs and other such eccentricities. What was suggested to me was simply, is it functional? If someone believes they are the living incarnation of Zeus, and this enables them to do productive things with their life then fine, maybe they are. If they opt for standing on window ledges wearing only a toga and threatening to throw thunderbolts, less so.
It’s the one key question to ask of magic as well – does it work? Does what you believe enhance your life, or is it making you miserable, suspicious and unable to function? If your belief sends you out talking to trees and making up stories, all well and good. If it makes you feel like the gods are telling you to kill someone, then not ok at all. From a certain perspective, every last human being is insane. The human condition is not a rational one.
So, how should we as pagans deal with mental health issues, both our own and others? With compassion, patience and an open mind. Don’t assume anything. Beliefs that enable happiness and enrich a person’s life are good. Beliefs that enable folk to get by in the world and not be ground down by experience, are to be encouraged. Beliefs that harm and bring destructive behaviour and misery, are never good, no matter how pagan a dressing you put on them.