Seekers and Guides: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism (Part One)

I’ve been there.  Staring into a bleak abyss of misery, with no hope and no prospect of any; wondering whether I should slit my wrists, eat a bottle of pills, or jump off of my hometown’s only parkade.

I’ve been there.  Curled in a heap on the floor, sniffling as the police carried the unconscious form of my best friend out of the apartment next door to me, where he’d swallowed a whole bottle of Tylenol 3s while I hosted a New Year’s Eve party he’d been invited to.

I’ve been there.  Standing at a Samhain altar, about to priestess for my community for the very first time, when we were told that Jodi, a sweet woman who was always smiling, was not late; she was dead by her own hand, and just that morning.

I’ve been there.  Seven o’clock in the morning, sitting in the hospital, keeping a woman in my congregation company as she awaited shock treatments for her severe depression while delicate hands below scar-mangled wrists fidgeted anxiously in her lap.

I’ve been there.  Four years old, hiding under the couch with my little brother while a police officer talked quietly with our dad; then Dad explaining to us that Mom needed a rest from all of us and she would be in the hospital for the next month.  And it seemed like forever when I was that young.

The Insidious Nature of Depression

Let’s start by dispelling some myths.  Depression is the result of a chemical deficiency.  It’s an illness; no different than, say, the hemoglobin deficiency that causes sickle cell anemia.  It can be hereditary.  It’s as dangerous as diabetes.  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s not something you can just turn off if you want to.  It’s not that easy, and urging suffers to “cheer up,” or pointing out why their situation isn’t that bad, only serves to minimize and demean their trials, and makes them less likely to reach out to other people for help.  And that’s when people succumb to the illness.

Where the problem and confusion come in is that it often has triggers.  Stress, grief, poverty, life changes (even childbirth or menopause), loneliness, feelings of alienation, a history of abuse or trauma, catastrophic injury, concurrent mental illnesses and addictions can all contribute to triggering or deepening depression.  So can purely biological causes, like neurological disorders, hormonal fluctuations, shift work, not getting enough sleep, or not getting proper nutrition in one’s diet.

Statistically, Pagans are more likely to experience many of the risk factors than the average population.  Most of us have suffered from feeling like black sheep; those who come from homes with opposing faiths, struggle with gender identity or practice alternate lifestyles are even more likely to experience this.  We tend to be working class people, whose education often outstrips our financial circumstances, leading to frustrated ambitions and debt.  We are more likely than the average population to come from abusive backgrounds and suffer from neuroses or anxiety disorders.  Pagan leaders are almost guaranteed to encounter someone who looks to them for guidance that struggles with this illness.  And if you’ve got a diagnosis of a depressive disorder – at least you know you know you’re not alone!

When an addiction comes into play it ups the ante.  Therapists now call this deadly combination a “complex addiction,” “dual diagnosis” or “comorbidity” and they’ve learned that you have to treat both concurrently, since an addict is almost always self-medicating.

Not all depression is clinical.  Sometimes it is a reaction to life’s events.  This is why so many people insist upon the “cheer up” prescription.  But often, it’s a pre-existing vulnerability that is activated by life’s events.  And it’s dangerous.  In the US, 3.4 percent of those with major depressive disorder commit suicide and 60% of suicide victims have major depression or another mood disorder.

Symptoms

If you’re worried that you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, some of the symptoms include:

  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits.
  • Changes in body weight.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Stressed relationships with loved ones.
  • Reduced sex drive.
  • Low mood.
  • Fatigue, headache, or digestive problems.
  • Chronic generalized pain.
  • Agitation or lethargy.
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and other aspects of self-care.
  • Cognitive changes (loss of short term memory, inability to do simple math, etc.)
  • Poor concentration.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Preoccupation with feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness and self-hatred.
  • Preoccupation with inappropriate levels of guilt or regret.
  • Psychosis or delusions.
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Sometimes a person tries too hard to laugh it off.  In this case, they avoid conversation about their difficulties entirely and instead put on a happy demeanor. Often the class clown is laughing so s/he won’t cry. This unwillingness to be vulnerable, even with one’s closest friends, can be a warning sign also.  Humor could be biting and bitter.

It should be noted that children especially may display agitation and irritability rather than lethargy.  They often lose interest in school and their grades decline.  They might become clingy, dependent, demanding or insecure.  They are often misdiagnosed as having attention deficit disorder or a learning disability.

Emergency First Aid

I realize that there are many of us who don’t like doctors and don’t like medication.  But listen: this is no small matter.  Just like with any other life-threatening illness, the first priority is to get out of the danger zone.  The first step is to reach out.  The second step is often meds.  At least for now, at least for a while.  Please, if you’ve entertained the thought of suicide for more than a second, reach out to someone, anyone.  A friend, a guide, a family member; and also a professional.

I can hear the negative self-talk now.  “Oh, nobody wants to hear about my problems.”  “I don’t have anyone I can reach out to.”  “I have to be strong for everyone else.”  “People tell me I should get over it, but I just can’t.”

I’m sure you’re wrong.  I’m sure there’s somebody who cares about your problems.  Sometimes just having a listening ear can be amazingly helpful.  If you can’t find a friend to talk to, most areas have support groups you can join.  And if you’re on that edge, the suicide hotline number in the US and Canada is 1-800-273-TALK (8255); in the UK you can find a full list of contacts at http://www.samaritans.org; and in Australia it is 13 11 14 and New Zealand it is 09 5222 999 within Auckland and 0800 543 354 outside of Auckland.


In the next few subsequent columns, I will discuss a Pagan spiritual perspective, self-care, alternative or complimentary therapies, professional resources for sufferers, resources for those suffering from dual diagnosis, how you can help others, and resources for teachers of the Craft.  The next installment will be appearing next week, not in two weeks!

Next column: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism (Part 2)

Seekers and Guides is published on alternate Mondays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

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