Spiritual Treatment Is No Substitute For Mental Health Care

In a comment to a recent blog post, someone I won’t name said:

“Mental health issues” is another way of saying spiritual issues

No.

Just no.

This isn’t a difference of opinion. This isn’t a case of “agree to disagree.” This is a wrong and dangerous belief that I see too often in Pagan and alternative spirituality circles.

It was bad enough when one of the Baptist preachers of my youth screamed from the pulpit “people don’t need psychotherapy, they need to get right with God.” I was only 9 or 10 at the time, but I remember thinking to myself “I think you need psychotherapy.” Later events would prove me right, though that had nothing to do with his fundamentalist beliefs.

I would expect better from Pagans, polytheists, and the spiritual-but-not-religious. We like to think of ourselves as better educated, more open minded, and less judgmental. But too many of us jump to wrong conclusions because they’re nice and easy, or we reject mainstream treatments because they’re part of the mainstream and we want to be countercultural. So we suffer needlessly and – as in the case of the commenter above – we commit spiritual malpractice and encourage others to avoid necessary treatment.

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder, if you have a problem with substance abuse or an eating disorder, or if you have any other mental illness, you have a mental health problem and you need mental health treatment, not spiritual treatment.

This is true whether you’re a Pagan, a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist. If you need mental health treatment, then get mental health treatment. If you don’t have access to proper treatment (it’s not cheap and it’s often poorly covered by insurance) then look for no-cost and low-cost options in your area. Some care is better than no care.

But make sure you understand what mental illness is, and what it isn’t.

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Feeling bad – even for an extended time – does not mean you have mental health issues

There is a quote of uncertain origins that says

Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.

Physical pain is your body’s way of telling you something’s wrong and needs to change. Pain in my upper gastro-intestinal region tells me I need to consume less caffeine, chocolate, and citrus. Vague pain in the back of my head tells me I need more sleep. Sore quadriceps remind me I’m not young anymore and I need to deal with the aging process.

Emotional pain – especially stress – is also telling you that something’s wrong and needs to change. In the mid-1990s I spent over two years working 50 to 80 hours a week, every week. I was miserable. I wasn’t depressed and I didn’t need antidepressants – I needed a new job! When I found one, my life improved immensely.

Have you recently suffered a loss due to death, disease, or divorce? The fact that you’re hurting means you’re human – this is how you’re supposed to feel. We’re told we should “get over it” in a couple of days, mainly so we don’t disturb the illusions of invulnerability of those around us. Grief is normal and necessary. Now, if it goes on indefinitely you may need help, but the idea we should always be happy is unrealistic and harmful.

Our mainstream society makes it hard for us to avoid stress. We’re expected to work 8 to 10 hours a day, take care of our families, cook and clean, exercise, consume a suitable amount of vapid entertainment products, and still have time to “follow your bliss.” I don’t know anyone who can do all that, even those who have the financial resources to substitute money for time. The inability to live up to these ridiculous expectations is not a sign of mental illness.

Every body is different – so is every brain

Look around you – what do you see? People are different: different heights, weights, and body types, different hair colors and skin tones, different sexes and gender expressions. Everybody – every body – is different.

If our bodies are so different, why would you expect our brains to all be the same?

Or, as the saying goes “normal is a setting on the dryer.”

In our noble desire to eliminate mental illness – and in our ignoble attempts to enforce conformity – we often end up trying to eliminate mental divergence. We try to get rid of our freaks – for their own good, of course…

I have a friend who is bipolar. They tell me their emotions run from 1 to 10. With medication, they run from 4 to 7. Medication makes it possible for them to consistently function in the mainstream world, and they don’t miss the bad days when they feel like a 1 or a 2. But they miss the good days when they feel like a 9 or 10.

Many brilliant artists struggle with mental illness – how much would we lose if we medicated them out of existence? If there was no variation in mental states, would we have any mystics, shamans, or spirit workers?

Instead, what if our society was set up to accommodate people on their bad days as well as their good days? What if we didn’t demand every person be “on” every day? What if we allowed people to be fully human and to express the full range of their humanity?

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Daily spiritual practice helps you be you

Regular spiritual practice is the best way to help you deal with the things you need to deal with. It helps you recognize when you’re surrounded by assholes and helps you build the strength to move to a better place.

Meditation, prayer, offerings, following the sky, communion with the natural world, devotional reading and study – pick a practice and get started. Over time, add something to it. It can be grounded in polytheism, monotheism, or nontheism. Regular spiritual practice helps identify what’s important to you and keeps you connected to it despite the constant barrage of advertising insisting you must buy what they’re selling if you ever want to be happy.

Spiritual practice helps you accept yourself for who and what you are, even if that’s not what the mainstream society tells you you’re supposed to be. That acceptance helps you to follow the path you’re called to follow.

But spiritual practice is no substitute for proper mental health care. Again, if you suffer from depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, you have a mental health problem and you need mental health treatment, not spiritual treatment.

Don’t commit malpractice, even on yourself

At least a couple times a year, there’s a news story about a child who dies or almost dies because their parents try to substitute prayer for proper medical care. In recent years, states have started prosecuting these parents and sending them to jail, which is where they belong. You cannot deny your child proper medical care just because your beliefs about medicine fly in the face of the facts.

You have the legal right to deny yourself proper treatment, but why would you?

It is true that spiritual issues and mental health issues are often intertwined. But that’s no reason to ignore one part of the problem and only concentrate on the other part. If you’re physically ill, work your healing spells, but also see a doctor. If you’re mentally ill, draw on the power of your spiritual and magical traditions, but also see a mental health professional.

Spiritual treatment is no substitute for proper mental health care.

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