Atheopagan Practice and Mental Illness

It is said that about 13% of people worldwide suffer some kind of mental illness and/or substance abuse issue. That figure goes as high as 18% in some countries; poorer countries tend to have lower reporting, so these figures are skewed to the low end.

That’s 970 million people.

I am one of them.

I have lived with—and suffered through sometimes severe bouts of—Major Depressive Disorder since I was a young child. It has deeply affected and colored my life, for better and for worse.

As we learn more about the ways mental illness affects so many of us, it is important for us to be aware that, whether we know it or not, people around us are grappling with issues such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis. And, as people who have chosen a path that involves deliberately manipulating our emotions and brain states, we have to take particular care when working with groups or if we ourselves contend with mental illness.

Now, in writing this, I can only write from my own experience. I know depression inside and out, and I have lived in close enough proximity with a sufferer from anxiety such that I feel I know that pretty well, too. But when it comes to other symptoms, such as hearing voices or feeling paranoia, all I can do is express empathy, and work to try for my interactions with folks who suffer from these to be kind and not triggering of symptoms.

Let me just say this right here: if you are experiencing symptoms and need help, please seek it out. In the United States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, has hotlines and other support resources. PLEASE call their hotline at 800-950-NAMI, contact them by texting NAMI to 741741, or find a local hotline to call. You are not alone, and you are worthwhile. Please reach out.

When it comes to our ritual practices, there are many opportunities to trigger insecurities and free-floating anxiety: stage fright over being the focus of attention and fear of being judged/wanting to “perform” well, fear over “losing control” as the mind shifts into the Ritual State, fear of “looking silly”, and so forth.

As for depression, The Black Voice says, why bother? And motivation to do ritual activities that could help us feel better drains through the floor.

It can be the hardest part of the work simply to carry forward with a ritual process without succumbing to the doubts and fears that mental illness trots out in front of us.

For my fellow sufferers, my advice is based in my own very trial-and-error process in developing a religious practice while living with depression.

It is to go carefully, but go.

People have been addressing their mental illnesses through ritual practices that support their self-esteem, their optimism, and their sense of beauty in living for thousands of years. Today, benefiting from the accumulated wisdom and technical knowledge about how to create effective rituals from all those centuries of human history, we can do good for ourselves by having a regular ritual practice.

I have one more thing to say, and that is about psychoactive drugs.

Depending on your diagnosis, the medications you may be on, and your personal values, some very intense ritual experiences such as those employing entheogens may not be for you…but on the other hand, they may be exactly what you need.

There is a growing body of evidence that such substances as psilocybin, ketamine, and MDMA are remarkably helpful for folks who contend with depression and anxiety. I have personal experience of this, and I believe that a combination of MDMA and a very healthy, loving relationship in my twenties saved me from suicide at that time.

I am not encouraging the exploration of these substances. I’m just saying what I’ve learned and experienced personally.

Sometimes more mundane psychoactive substances can be helpful. I have found that prior to performing a group ritual, I benefit from a very small amount of alcohol—a single 12 oz. beer, or a glass of wine—to bring me more into the present and calm the jitters. No more than that, and no less: it’s a carefully titrated dosage.

All this aside, be sure that you take care of your physical and mental self when preparing for and after completing a ritual. Being fed and hydrated and making certain that you thoroughly ground yourself before re-entering ordinary human spaces or driving a vehicle is essential for your own and others’ safety. And if you are comfortable with disclosing your condition, letting your fellow celebrants know any aspects of the planned ritual you may find challenging or triggering is a good idea.

I feel for your struggle, and honor the courage and perseverance it has taken for you to live with your symptoms.

Mentally ill people are STRONG, make no mistake about it. We have to carry the equivalent of an anvil around our necks and we still manage to have families, careers, religious practices, and creative endeavors, and that is the very definition of strength, whether or not neurotypical people can understand this is the case.

Carry on, friend. I’m pulling for you.


12 thoughts on “Atheopagan Practice and Mental Illness

  1. The most important thing I learned from my own periods of nearly lethal depression (happily, far behind me, I trust) is that Depression Lies.
    When we are in that depressed state, “confirmation bias” kicks in, and it’s very difficult to see anything that contradicts depression’s “story”, whatever it is- usually some variation on “I am a worthless piece of garbage, passing as a human, and the world would be a better place without me”.
    It can help, I learned, to find, and hang on to that tiny, little rational place, ‘way over in the corner of your mind, that reminds you: “Don’t believe what you’re thinking”. Interestingly- and I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this- I also reached a point at which I realized that I was just bored with my story. One day I was running over the same old ground, and I thought “How long are going to hang on to that one? Aren’t you getting tired of it?”, and I was. That was a turning point for me.
    It’s a tough slog, and the most important thing is to not believe, and especially not act, on the false story. It really does get better. It can help to find someone to listen, as you tell it, not to try to argue you out of it, but just to let you talk it out, until you start getting tired of it and begin seeing what else is out there.
    Thanks, Mark, and be well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. KenofKen

      Over the years I have found that a deep skepticism of my own perceptions is a key to surviving depression. Especially in the winter when I’m at my lowest, I tend to disregard my depressed self narrative as completely untrustworthy. That doesn’t pull me out of the hole, but it does keep me from doing anything regrettable because of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. As noted above, depression LIES LIKE A RUG. If you live with it long enough, some of the things it says to you are almost funny in their complete bleakness, lack of nuance and certainty.


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  3. Beckie Wagner

    As an older person (72). Who dealt with severe depression in my 40’s, I appreciated your sharing. I maintain a good balance with a natural anti- depressant- Sam-e. I came away amazed at how common pharmaceuticals are and such an intimate part of our everyday lives now. For me, still unfamiliar territory. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Atheopagan Practice and Mental Illness, by Mark Green | Humanistic Paganism

  5. Iden Hill

    Brother Green, I recently retired as a mental health practitioner in a clinical setting. I am a Certified Peer Specialist II and a veteran. It was the only job I ever had that required that I have a (psychiatric) disability. I grew up Roman Catholic but became a confirmed Atheist at 15. Been hangin’ out with pagans since 1988 because spirituality is hard wired into our brains and pagan ( see The Chocolate Ritual) rituals are a lot more fun. Less guilt, more fulfilling. As, for my own MDD, you are correct, management and good mental hygiene (attitude) are keys. Nature based rituals that I have co-written and performed, leave presenting the performance to any outside agency other than the celebrants up to those celebrating. I prepare every ritual of my practice with a mindfulness routine and ask participants to join in. Just keeping it real. Still not comfortable with online rituals. Trying though. Will gladly share ritual and mindfulness material with interested folks.

    Iden Hill (Wolcen)


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