Tag Archives: mental health

Is depression a soul ailment?

The UK national health service identifies the following as signs of depression – Loss of identify and self-esteem. Sadness, when there is maybe nothing to feel sad about. Extreme guilt over minor matters. A sense of failure, when this is not realistic. Loneliness, even among other people. Tearfulness, when there is nothing to cry about. Constant exhaustion. Feelings of hopelessness, misery or despair. Difficulty in concentrating or making decisions. Thoughts of death or suicide.

To help people recover, it encourages sufferers to be more socially active, less judgmental about ourselves, and to participate in more things that make us happy.  There’s an underpinning assumption that if there’s no apparent external source of unhappiness, it’s a cognitive-behavioral glitch to fix. I have no doubt that for many people, this is entirely workable.

So what happened when I think about this as a pagan and a Druid? I look at the list of symptoms, and think about our relationship with the planet. My relationship. The world I live in doesn’t make much sense to me and is driven by values I neither like nor respect. How can I be myself in a context like that? Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be any room for who I am and how I want to live. I feel sad and I’ve carried that for a long time. Sad about the human suffering in the world, animal extinctions, loss of beautiful places, climate change. I don’t know how it’s possible to live in this world and not feel sad, unless you undertake to be carefully oblivious to what’s happening everywhere, all the time. Extreme guilt – how can I not be conscious of my carbon footprint and what my existence costs other life forms? A sense of failure… I look at the world I live in, and I do not feel good about it. Loneliness, because there is so much around me that feels alien and wrong, how can I feel connected? Tearfulness – when is there not something to cry about? How can I not mourn what I see? Constant exhaustion – that goes with lack of inspiration for me, which is a soul ailment and goes with all of the above stuff. Hopelessness, misery and despair – I challenge anyone who is paying attention not to feel this way. Difficulty in concentrating and making decisions – the more aware you are, the more readily you can see the flaws and failings in every available option. Choosing becomes bigger and harder. Thoughts of death and suicide… aware that the planet would benefit enormously from the absence of humans.

Is depression irrational? No it isn’t. Is it an inevitable consequence of being more aware? Possibly. Does that mean it is insurmountable and that anyone who cannot tune out reality is doomed to abject misery?

No.

We have to choose otherwise.

No one single person is going to be able to put all to rights. One single person’s contribution isn’t going to make that much direct odds in the scheme of things. But if you are soul sick, disconnected and in pain, you can either try and find a new way to blot that out (learn a new skill, the doctors recommend) or you can see about fixing it in a deeper way.

Depression is a sickness of realization. The cure is not jumping back into the oblivion pool where most people are still quietly drowning themselves. The cure is action, and making things better. The process of wake up and realization is painful, but we need more people waking up, not more means to drug and befuddle ourselves into not noticing.

Sleep Matters

One of the easiest and most effective things a person can do to help recover from illness or distress, is sleep. When we sleep, our bodies are better able to heal, and so are our minds. A shortage of sleep aggravates many conditions, putting extra strain on our systems. There is no over the counter medicine that compares with it.

If you can’t manage to sleep, then lying down in a warm, comfortable place without too much light or noise, is highly beneficial. When I’ve been too distressed to unwind, too plagued by troubled thoughts, I’ve found that music, being read to, or just having the radio on helps take my mind of things and enables rest.

It’s a form of healing we don’t take seriously enough – hospitals with their continual noise and lights are very hard places for a person to rest in. There are increasing numbers of medications out there to help you suppress the symptoms and get on with a regular working day, rather than resting to get over a mild complaint. We use stimulants – especially caffeine, to keep us awake when exhaustion threatens.

I’ve hears too many tales already from folk who find themselves unable to get enough sleep – usually thanks to a combination of work and home pressures. Everyone needs a decent amount of sleep every night to maintain a decent level of mental and physical health. Last time we discussed sleep on this blog, a number of folks self identified as not having lives that permitted them enough rest normally, much less when they are ill 

Under international law, sleep deprivation counts as torture.

If you are being EXPECTED to do without sleep, please go back and read that above statement again. Sleep is a basic human right and necessity, following on after air, water and food. It’s not a luxury, or a thing you can afford to do without.

Religion and Insanity

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.