Mental Health and the Pagan Path

Due to severe mental health issues, I have been under the care of the Mental Health Services for several years. This period of protracted ill health started after the forced loss of my job in the NHS. My job was something that I had invested a lot of my sense of self in and it was one of the ways I expressed many of my values. The irony of becoming a patient has not been lost on me.

As a practising Pagan I used to advise our local hospital Chaplain on matters Pagan and esoteric, so I was interested to see how my local Mental Health Service treated me and my spirituality. My experience has been mixed to say the least! I have seen somewhere in the region of 25+ healthcare professionals and only one asked whether I was of a particular faith and that was just to tick a box on a form. The only other person who asked about my spiritual beliefs wrote them up as, “suffers from religious delusions”! At no point has anyone asked if I would like to see a relevant chaplain, which suggests they have no one relevant for me to see. This is a sad state of affairs, particularly as I live in an area of the country with a thriving Pagan population.

So, I was really left to struggle on alone, with the question of how to continue to express my spirituality whilst also suffering with poor mental health. I realised this is more difficult than I had anticipated. Performing even the smallest ritual proved impossible when I was so ill, I couldn’t get out of bed and was having auditory and visual hallucinations. I am living in a reality where I can’t trust my senses regarding what is real. Am I having a shamanic experience or a psychotic episode? Or both? I realised that performing ritual was putting me in a potentially dangerous place. Whereas before I had always felt safe within circle, now performing this ritual was fraught with anxiety.

So, if the performance of rituals was potentially putting myself in danger, how could I express my spirituality?

It was around this time that, as part of my daily tarot practice, I pulled the Hierophant. I was using Ciro Marchetti’s Legacy of the Divine Tarot, which relabels this card Faith. What I wasn’t expecting was how angry this card made me feel. I instantly knew this anger was directed towards my spirituality. How dare my spiritual path be one that, as soon as I become unwell, I can longer practice it! This is where I found myself – worried about having a psychotic episode if I did ritual, frustrated that I couldn’t express my spirituality if I didn’t.

It also threw up several other questions for me to consider. One of my more unpleasant and intimidating experiences of being a patient has been when a nurse wanted to pray over me to “fix” my mental health. Am I, and indeed other people who live with disabilities and health conditions, someone who needs to be fixed? Am I broken in some way and therefore somehow “less” than others? Does praying for me to be “whole” cast me as a passive victim of circumstance and therefore unable to lead a fulfilling life?

My mental health means that I see the world in a different way and what is “normal” for me is different to other people. But what do we mean by “normal”? Do we have a definition that we expect everyone to conform to? I believe that we tend to homogenise
human experience, so that it conforms to societal norms, because we feel
uncomfortable with people who experience the world in different ways. But shouldn’t difference be celebrated not hidden? I don’t believe that I am broken and in need of fixing, my mental health is simply part of who I am and what makes me unique.

The Pagan path encourages us to live fulfilling lives. It has often been said that we are way for the Divine to know Herself – we all contain a spark of the Divine, being made of the same building blocks as the rest of the Universe. If this is the case, then everything we do is of value to the Divine (and it harm none!) and therefore sacred. Ritual is something we do for ourselves, a formalised way to connect with the Divine – but She doesn’t need it. I realised that, as long as I remained mindful of what I was experiencing, I was connecting with Her. My periods of very poor
mental health were also valuable to Her because we are all unique and experience life in different ways. The Divine is experiencing what it means to be human in all its colour and diversity and through our connection, we can empathise with those who are suffering with their experience of life at the moment. We can reach out and enable others to express themselves and their spirituality without casting them as victims whilst still acknowledging their vulnerability.

As for me, well I am a work on progress as they say, and this is where the Tarot comes back in. I have been using it for many years and had been thinking about how I could better incorporate it into my life. I started to explore the psychological potential of the Tarot, asking questions and pulling cards to explore issues I was experiencing and how it could help me to understand what was going on in my head. Then it struck me that the Tarot itself could be an expression of my spirituality. Tarot spreads on the
seasonal festivals are now a major part of how I celebrate them, as well as using the Tarot in my daily life to discover what it means to be me.