Editors note:  When my friend Byron Ballard named September “Women’s Voices Month” I thought long and hard about what I could as a man do to support the effort.  My decision was to offer space on my blog for women I highly respect to write on any topic they wish with no input from me.  Below you will find a guest post from Amber Roth, whom I admire greatly!

Women - Sign 
When I started formulating ideas for this entry, I had a completely different direction in mind.  However, an accumulation of recent experiences make me feel I’ve been put in the middle of a mess that needs to be addressed to the greater community.  That subject is our approach to the mental health of our fellow community members.  No, let me correct that, to our fellow humans.


Let me start by saying that I am no psychologist, but mental health has been a passion that I have enjoyed researching on my own for quite a while now.  I’ll often see discussions about how we, as Pagans, need to help support our community members that are going through these psychological hurdles of mental illness laid along their path.  Yet, despite these wonderful, theoretical discussions, support is not what I see happening.  What I have seen is two extreme approaches that seem to be doing a great deal of harm.


The first set of extremes is the glorification of mental illness. There is a concept that seems to be gaining popularity, that the burden of suffering a mental illness is something that makes one closer to the Divine. Some people hold the position that mental illness is psychological stigmata that marks those the Divine has particularly chosen. This has even extended into advising those with a serious disorder, such as schizophrenia, to abandon medical help and instead view their affliction as a divine gift. An example can be seen in rationalizing the abandonment of helpful therapy for autistic or ADHD children by calling them “Indigo Children”, thereby invalidating the idea that they need to be able to function in day to day life and making help an unwelcome lack of faith.


Those that defend this position often state that they are only accepting the diversity of the divine. Or they may insist that classifying the person’s state as a mental illness is a gross misdiagnosis meant to strip our children of their spiritual connection.


There are a plethora of valid concerns surrounding some concerns about misdiagnosis; to even begin to deny this would be ignoring a very real problem. However, what we, as laymen, seem to forget is that the world of human health in general is a highly complicated realm and our comprehension of the brain is still very new. Our knowledge is constantly growing and changing and those that have dedicated their lives to the study of the profession are still only human no matter their level of passionate devotion. There will be times when our medical theories are turned on their heads, times when a patient reacts poorly to medications, times we may face a less than adequate professional, and times when even the best will make mistakes. But we should not let the fear of such things scare us into not facing the reality of mental illness.


It is a beautiful fantasy to believe that all those with mental health obstacles are divinely gifted instead of burdened by difficulties for the entirety of their lives. I can understand why people choose to believe in such things.  Isn’t it only human to want the best for our loved ones?  We should not be relying on fantasy and hope to help our loved ones, and we are fortunate to live in a time where we are not limited to those options.  Would it not be a greater act of love to take the time to learn what our loved ones are facing and find how we can best help them instead of placing them inside our bubble of hope?  What we don’t realize when we place them inside that bubble, is that we’re unintentionally blocking them from the help they desperately need.


In the same vein, instead of looking objectively at unusual experiences, many that defend this concept take a position of extreme, unconditional acceptance. This may be relatively harmless at times; experiences or beliefs that in no way affect the person’s ability to handle life.  Other times, there are strongly held beliefs about an individual being divinely chosen and led can result in unnecessary and irreparable harm done to themselves and others.


None of this is saying that the Divine doesn’t have the ability to touch and guide our lives, or that strange and supernatural occurrences that defy what we understand of the known world are always a work of mere imagination. Many of us have had such undocumentable experiences and feel confident in the existence of things beyond our current understanding. The presence of those experiences do not take away from the fact that by refusing to examine an unusual belief, we risk enabling delusion that could potentially grow to endanger others. We need to discard the idea that challenging beliefs in a conscious and respectful way means we are turning our backs on spiritual entities and experiences.


The second set of extremes is the level of judgement of those in our community trying to deal with their individual complications. This includes verbally attacking those sharing their experiences or reaching out for help. Statements suggesting they “get over it” or “stop complaining” are common. Struggling individuals are often bombarded with quick fix style tips of diet and exercise plans, comedy links, or pictures of cute kittens so they can just “cheer up”. According to professional knowledge about combating mental health issues, patients recover or cope best with a network of friends and family to help support them, along with beneficial therapy and/or medication. Despite this, demanding and dismissive utterings are more common than the support most say they know is needed.


Those that defend this attitude often say they are just trying to help by providing a distraction or refusing to let patients focus on the negativity in their lives. Many state their own unresearched beliefs on how long it should take for someone to recover from a particular affliction. Others use their own experiences with acute stressors as a gauge to how someone with a mental disorder should act and react.


This is not rational. How can we say that we want to help people when the first words we respond with are about how they shouldn’t talk about the things we asked them to talk about so we could help them? It’s quite easy to sit in judgement and say how we would handle their situation. We do it all the time in the news or on social media; hearing a story and then passing judgement on the actions of the people involved. But we forget in those moments that we’re not them, and we do not live in their minds. We do not experience the paralyzing condition that prevented them from doing something as simple as getting the mail or taking out the trash, so we condemn their inability rather than try to comprehend. Can we not see that we are pushing them away by slapping down the hand they hold out to us?


I can understand the frustration of those on the outside. Who wouldn’t want to see their loved ones able to enjoy life to the fullest? Sometimes we do try to help, only to find our efforts do nothing to make sense of the twisted kaleidoscope they see the world through, leaving us feeling helpless, confused, and embittered. But no matter our level of frustration, we need to remember how frustrated those struggling with the mental illness we’re attempting to help with must be.


For those that have no personal experience with mental illness, it is an exceptionally complicated thing to endure. It’s a much more elusive affliction than a purely physical ailment. We rely on our minds to process the world around us just to be able to live day to day in the reality we see, yet mental illness creates illusions and insists that they are accurate. Much different from an acute stressor, these fractured interpretations of the world are not fleeting or temporary, and will not just “go away”. Comparable in a way to a food allergy or diabetes, no amount of hopeful or positive thinking will allow someone who’s allergic to shrimp to be eat them without being sick, and just sticking to a diet for three months will not cure one of diabetes. With similar varying degrees of severity, mental illnesses take time to learn to manage properly and often require a lifetime of strict adherence to those management tools.


It is true that we can only help those that are willing to help themselves, but mental illness is rarely something people can help themselves with alone and without professional insight. It is also true that there are fine lines between helping , enabling, and abandoning, and those lines can be confusing. But why are the most common approaches that we take in such conflict with what is really needed? Whether out of fear or want for comfort of mind, intentionally or by acts of ignorance, we continue to turn our backs on the people that need our love most of all.


So many of these people are caught in between the proverbial rock and hard place. If they reach out and ask for help, they risk the harsh treatment and criticism from loved ones and community members.  If they do reach out, they still have to be careful they don’t reach out too often or they may get scolded and rejected for being perceived as an attention seeking drama queen. If they don’t reach out for help, their illness spirals downward towards rock bottom. If others realize it reaches rock bottom before they reach out, they get lectured for how irresponsible they are in not reaching out for help earlier.  Some groups will exclude those who undergo therapy or treatment from ritual or celebrations. There is also the problem of a person sharing or discussing the professional help they’re getting, and undergoing an unwanted barrage of corrections to a treatment that has already been proven to be helpful. Or suggestions for treatments that have been determined to be useless to their personal mix of personality, biochemistry, and disorder(s). In what part of that are we helping them?  Where in these common approaches to a person suffering from a mental illness are we supporting their journey towards healing? Instead, what we are doing is creating an environment of fear and hesitation where we hinder our community members to want to get necessary help for fear of rejection.  These blows are even more severe to those that suffer disorders from the anxiety and depression spectrum where their mind already creates convincing illusions of abandonment by friends and family.


To change such a dysfunctional environment is a difficult task, and requires people who are willing to change. Instead of relying on assumptions and questionable information, we need to take the time to learn at least the basics of the relevant mental affliction from credible sources or face that we lie when we say we truly want to help. But as we each go through the paradigm shift, let us also remember that the level of difficulty we’re experiencing is with a neurotypical brain, with no fractured kaleidoscope to further refract our views through our trial. May we remember that our mental turbulence is only temporary, that it will pass in a short time. Most of the mentally ill people we’re doing it for would be relieved to be able to say that. When we consider that, do we not owe just a small bit of effort to learn and change ourselves before we even contemplate insisting on change in others?


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