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NeoPagans and Psychiatry

Note: this is a piece that I wrote a while back, and I’ve since altered my belief slightly. Perhaps I should also preface it with the fact that I hate the field of psychoanalysis as a general rule, but, nonetheless, this isn’t a rant.

Reading anything that makes you think is brilliant. Less useful, but still interesting, is reading a well written text that reflects an opinion or thought of your own, but expands upon it, thus leading you to do the same. I say this in reference to a specific example: the article In Tune – The Healing Powers of Intuition by Judith Orloff MD, featured in SageWoman issue #70. This article is in concordance with a view I personally hold, however, I believe the article can be expanded upon in order to recognise the greater ramifications of the content.

A highly relevant and important quote (from the aforementioned article) to consider is this:

“Traditional psychiatry equates ‘visions’ or even an extra-assertive inner voice with severe mental illness… Typically, such people would be medicated with Thorazine and hospitalized in lock-down in-patient units until their ‘symptoms’ subsided.”

This attitude is directly reflective of one of the biggest flaws in traditional psychiatry and psychotherapy: namely, the idea that the psychiatrist/psychologist/psychoanalyst is knowledgeable of the ‘correct’ way of thinking, and that any deviation (major or otherwise) is subjected to all the negative connotations of the word ‘deviation.’ That is, that there is something inherently wrong or flawed with a perspective or mental operation that is different to the basis of comparison; namely, that of the psychiatrist.

Obviously, the idea of relative mental stability and ‘normalcy’ raises a very important issue, one that is reiterated by would-be individualists on a daily basis; what makes something ‘normal’? Normal is generally defined by the social norms, mores, standards and ideals of any given society, which means that all psychological theories are localised and specific, and cannot be applied to individuals extraneous of the specified group within which that theory was formed. So, where a NeoPagan interacts with a psychiatrist, there is already a division between the sub-cultures of the group, that can only be bridged via belonging to the same sub-sulture, or through a detailed understanding of and sympathy towards the differences.

This is particularly important to NeoPagans specifically, as the majority of religions and pratices that fall under this encompassing term (which for the sake of this ramble can be taken to include the non-religious pratice of witchcraft) characteristically possess ways of thinking, and inherent beliefs, that diverge greatly from the Western predispositions of contemporary society. Visions, clairvoyance, magical powers – these are common beliefs for many NeoPagans, even those who consider themselves virtuous examples of mental health. However, traditional psychology holds that anyone who believes such ideas is characteristically suffering from extreme mental disturbance or illness. Such a discrepancy in the sub-cultural beliefs obviously leads to problems of misunderstanding and misinterpretation between psychiatrist and (NeoPagan) patient.

There are also the broader ramifications of the resulting division in the NeoPagan community, between those who wish to exist within socially defined and accepted boundaries of ‘mental health’. These standards are obviously defined by the more prominent schools of psychological theory, which, as Orloff states, characteristically maintain that visions, or ‘magical thinking’ are symptomatic of severe mental illness or disturbance. Such attitudes are at odds with the beliefs of the majority of the NeoPagan community, creating a ludicrous tension between what is acceptable as an ‘esoteric belief’ and what is shunned as ‘mental illness’ due to its seeming fantastical components.

Furthermore, within the individual NeoPagan there is created a greater self-doubt when psychological edicts are believed and internalised; whilst most manage to create a distinct boundary between the ‘realistically magical’ and the ‘fantastically magical’, there is still largely a struggle to syncretise magical thinking and popular psychological theory (and the resulting Western social mores). This is unnecessary, obviously, as the average psychiatrist will easily distinguish between a devout belief in God or Allah, and mental illness. There is no difference, a miracle is to a Christian as a spell is to a NeoPagan. It is all a matter of personal belief and subjective reality.

That’s not to say that there are not NeoPagans out there who take such beliefs to extremes, due to mental illness or disturbance of some kind. There are NeoPagans with mental disorders, just as there are in any group you choose to examine. However, what is judged an extreme, as based on my previous argument, is almost impossible to judge as it is based almost entirely on personal subjectivity. Thus, other factors must be considered when attempting to determine whether or not an individual possesses particular beliefs as a result of mental illness. I am simply saying that possession of any beliefs that varies from social norms should not be considered defining concrete evidence of the presence of mental illness.

My suggestion is that all psychiatrists/psychologists/psychoanalysts should disregard ‘magical thinking’ as being definitively symptomatic of schizophrenia (or other major mental disturbances), and stop subjectively basing analysis and evaluation on a rapidly obsolete set of accepted religious beliefs and values. Variation is not the same as ‘deviation’, and the increasing diversity of beliefs and personal worldviews are quickly rendering the traditional schools of psychological analysis largely obsolete (although, as stated earlier, they were only ever effective in a localised, specific field). Flexibility in ‘accepted’ perspectives, and psychiatrist-patient interaction are the key to successful diagnosis and treatment.

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