(Update: I just discovered that today, March 1st, is Drake Spaeth’s birthday.)
Image: Drake Spaeth photo courtesy of www.spiritoftheearth.org
Masery: You recently attended The Chicago School of Professional Psychology Cultural Impact Conference. How often is this conference held and about how many people attended this year?
Drake: It is an annual conference, attended by students an faculty at The Chicago School. I would estimate that 1500-1600 people attend yearly.
Masery: You presented “Magic as Psychotherapy: Honoring the Frameworks of Contemporary Pagans”. Your presentation touched on the conflicting attitudes that many Pagans have toward mental health professionals. What are their opinions and concerns?
Drake: Pagans have traditionally avoided psychotherapy for fear of being misunderstood. They tend to prefer alternative medicine or holistic healers from their own or a related spiritual context. Their wariness is understandable when their children have been lost in custody battles where psychological evaluations slanted negatively toward their religious practices have been instrumental in the loss of their children. How does a polyamorous Pagan triad find a “couples counselor” who will be able to help them address relationship issues without seeing the polyamory as a pathological, problematic component of the problems? How does someone who is having a psychological crisis (e.g., depression, panic attacks, extreme anxiety, and personality changes) in association with a spiritual awakening or transformation in the Pagan context fid competent counseling support? How will a conventional therapist regard a belief that they are the target of psychic attack or someone’s negative magic?
Masery: Do you have any advice for Pagans seeking therapy or mental health services?
Drake: Remember that a counseling or therapy relationship entails a commitment that in its own way is as substantive and important as any other relationship in your life. It is okay to be careful and to not go with the first therapist you find through Google. It is important to ask a potential therapist how open–and in what ways are they open–to spirituality issues. In general, therapists who profess a humanistic-existential (e.g. person-centered, gestalt, emotion-focused, or experiential), transpersonal, Jungian approach will tend to be very Pagan-friendly. If the therapist is cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, or integrative, it is okay to ask more probing questions. Most therapists today are more willing to explain in detail what these perspectives mean so that you can make an informed choice. There is also a Pagan Professional Counseling yahoo group, managed by Michael Reeder. As this group gows over the years, it has become increasingly successful in matching Pagan clients to Pagan or Pagan friendly therapists.
Masery: The intent of the presentation was to facilitate awareness among therapists who may encounter Pagan clients. What were some of the cultural aspects of Paganism you shared with the attendees?
Drake: As you say, the presentation was primarily geared toward mental health professionals in terms of fostering competency to work with contemporary Pagans. My hope is that the tendency among mental health professionals to pathologize belief in magic as “schizotypal” or even “psychotic” and Pagan lifestyles as “unhealthy” or “dysfunctional”–already thankfully on the wane–will soon be an artifact of the past. Thankfully, a rapidly increasing number of us are aware of the importance of increasing cultural competence in working with those who are members of unfamiliar cultural contexts.
In terms of the cultural aspects that I shared, here are some excerpts from my PowerPoint:
Paganism (sometimes called Neo-Paganism) derives from the Latin word “paganus”- “country dweller” (Adler, 2006)
Umbrella term that includes a very large number of earth or nature –
based spiritual traditions that
1) are typically non-monotheistic,
2) may or may not recognize male and/or female deities,
3) tend to honor natural cycles (solar, lunar, seasonal)
4) derive from and celebrate the spirit of pre-Christian, largely European ancestors,
5) Commonly (though admittedly not universally) utilize magic as a tool of personal change in one’s life and/or physical change in the world
Types of Pagans (not an exhaustive list!)
–Wicca*: Gardnerian, Seax, Alexandrian, Greencraft, Dianic, Eclectic, and many more.
–Druidism (many types and groups)
–Celtic, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian Reconstructionists
–Family tradition Pagans
As you see, I presented a fairly standard and simplistic overview of Pagan culture to give some background, enough to spark interest (judging form office visits and email I am receiving) among some of the mental health professionals and psychology graduate students who attended to pursue a deeper level of cultural competence.
Drake: I showed correspondences between Pagan beliefs and conceptions about magic and cognitive-behavioral and humanistic-existential psychotherapy, between spellwork and personal empowerment, between the ritual circle and the therapy office, and between soul retrieval and psychological integration.
Masery: Did you have a chance to speak with participants after the presentation? What sort of responses or questions did they have?
Drake: A number of students came up to me and instantly identified themselves as Pagans–I enjoyed that. Others asked for references where they could explore this context more deeply. Many faculty and mental health professionals who were present stated that they were working with Pagan clients in their practices and very much appreciated the information. Others admitted that this presentation was the first time they had heard about any of this but were also thankful for the information!
Masery: Drake, besides all of your work as an assistant professor, you’ve also been a staff member, presenter, and ritual facilitator at the annual Pagan Spirit Gathering for the past 16 years. Festivals can be an intense mystical experience for people. Attendees often mention needing time to return to the real world, come down from a magical high. Has anyone ever had a serious mental health crisis at a festival? If so, how did the staff handle it?
Drake: I was coordinator of Psyche’s Grotto, the psychospiritual support center at PSG from 1997-2005–nine years. Kim Long Ewing (aka Windwalker) took over for a couple years, and Paul Larson (aka Chiron)–another faculty member at The Chicago School– has been the coordinator ever since.
Yes, crises are frequent. Many Pagans who have been prescribed psychotropic medication decide to use PSG as a time to wean themselves from the meds, or simply leave the meds at home altogether. Others have panic attacks as some novel stimuli at PSG triggers some aspect of the issues with which they struggle. Most who come to the Grotto simply need some mild support for deep emotions experienced in rituals or workshops, or they want some help in grounding and centering from abundant ritual stimulation. In all cases, staff (who are currently trained mental health professionals), are empathic and supportive. The instances where a given individual had to have been referred out of the gathering for more intensive support have been thankfully rare.
Masery: How is a mental health crisis different or similar to a spiritual one?
Drake: To a large extent these are convenient categories of description that an increasing umber of mental health professionals are realizing may be of limited usefulness in a postmodern world. Classic mental health crises occur when panic attacks, suicidal ideas or attempts, hallucinations (i.e., seeing, hearing, and feeling things that are not there), delusions (having very strange beliefs or convictions that seem unique to the individual and are not shared by anyone else), violence or aggression come to forefront, usually due to some precipitating stressful incident but based on a history that has supported the likelihood of such crises.
A spiritual crisis might refer to anxiety or worry about a new religious path or belief, an intense fear of death or non-being, intense questioning of life purpose or identity, or a feeling of strong instability associated with a spiritual awakening, rite of passage or transformation experience.
When a spiritual crisis also entails phenomena usually classified as a mental health crisis, mental health professionals have not always responded competently. Strong directives were issued by the American Psychological Association and other professional governing bodies during the late 1990s and early 2000s that graduate training programs address this gap in their educational structure. Schools have been slow to respond, due to the fact that spirituality is such a broad category. Chicago seems to be a strong center for emerging sensitivity to client spiritual issues in graduate training.
If you are a Pagan with a health concern or a health care professional, please share your story with the Staff of Asclepius as a guest author or by interview. Please email me. email@example.com
Other Sites and Articles of Interest:
Staff of Asclepius posts
“American Pagans Want to Change Health Care Legislation to Do More” www.patheos.com/community/paganswithdisabilities/2011/02/23/american-pagans-want-to-change-health-care-legislation-to-do-more/
“Interview with Kimberly Hendrick, PhD about the groundbreaking Pagan Health Survey” www.patheos.com/community/paganswithdisabilities/2011/01/16/interview-with-kimberly-hendrick-phd-about-the-groundbreaking-pagan-health-survey/
“Interview with Charlton Hall, therapist and Chief Druid of the UOD”