Mental illness affects all facets of society. Bad behavior affects all facets of society. There are mentally ill pagans, Christians, atheists, and members of any other group you can name. There are badly behaved pagans, Christians, atheists, and all others. The two are often intertwined, but they are not necessarily the same thing.
Take the case of former Major League Baseball player Chad Curtis. A devout Christian and disciplined rule-follower, Curtis was known for publicly calling out his teammates for crimes like talking to members of the opposing team, playing suggestive rap music, and not attending chapel. He was passed around the Major Leagues, playing for six teams in 10 years, presumably shuffled around because no one liked his behavior. Now, he sits in a Michigan prison, convicted of molesting students whom he worked with as an athletic trainer after his baseball career ended.
Is he ill? Maybe. Does it matter? No. When a pattern of people complain of a behavior, the person- and more importantly the behavior- must be dealt with. Compassion is good, but we can’t fix everyone.
In the pagan community, we are dealing with the fallout of the Kenny Klein arrest. We are seeking answers and searching for understandings so that we can responsibly move forward as a community. In this case, the issue is not so much the charges against Klein, but the revelation of multiple complaints about his behavior dating back decades that seem to have been ignored. Casting this uncomfortably bright light on ourselves, we are on an admirable search to heal and be sure that we have a better understanding of bad behavior and mental illness that will ensure that this does not happen again.
Like with Curtis, I don’t care about Klein’s mental illness diagnosis, if any. It’s extremely common for mental illness to go both undiagnosed and untreated. There are so many undiagnosed people out there in any community that relying on a diagnosed illness offers an uncomfortably false sense of security. What matters is the behavior. Both men are claimed to have used their religion as a cover for their illegal activities. This cannot be tolerated.
On the Pagan Activist blog, author Shauna Aura Knight discusses in detail the considerations that leaders in the community should consider when dealing with mental illness. She proposes four important questions. As a psychology teacher, I would like to offer my perspective on her concerns. Her questions are:
• What do we (as participants and leaders) need to know about mental health to build healthier communities?
• How do we recognize and address harmful behaviors?
• Can we address mental health issues without scapegoating the mentally ill?
• How do we know when we’re over our head?
Disclaimer: I am neither a psychologist nor a leader. I’m just an average pagan. There are many more qualified people to discuss both the specifics of mental illness and the intricacies of leadership. However, I do have a degree in psychology and teach the equivalent of Psych 101 for a living, so I do have some credibility here.
What do we (as participants and leaders) need to know about mental health to build healthier communities?
In 1973, David Rosenhan published his landmark study, On Being Sane in Insane Places. He had a group of mentally healthy “pseudopatients” go to 12 different mental institutions and falsely complain of hearing voices in their heads. The subjects were admitted with some form of diagnosis, usually schizophrenia. After entering the hospital, they stopped complaining and behaved normally and stopped complaining of hallucinations.
The hospital staff saw everything the person did through the filter of their “diagnosed” mental illness. Normal behaviors such as writing were seen as symptoms. Each patient’s background was interpreted through this lens of psychological disorder. When they were released, most were given the diagnosis of “schizophrenia is remission.” The label cast a pall over even the most normal of human behaviors
Worse, when a hospital challenged Rosenhan to send it pseudopatients to identify, he agreed. The institution identified 41 pseudopatients, but Rosenhan had actually never sent any.
Sometimes diagnostic labels do more harm than good. When we learn of a diagnosis from someone, we tend to explain (and sometimes excuse) all of their behavior as symptoms of the label rather than looking at the raw, unfiltered behavior and its effects on the person and those around him/her. Further, if we’re looking for labels, we find them. That’s a classic case of confirmation bias.
There is some value to diagnostic labels. They provide a model through which we can understand a person’s behavior, compare it against a standard set by professionals, and perhaps suggest that they get professional help. Christopher Penczak’s book The Living Temple of Witchcraft, Volume Two offers an excellent basic description of common mental and behavioral issues that could affect a person’s health and a group’s dynamics. With this list, labels can serve their function and leaders can take steps toward the health of the group and the person without attempting to diagnose a person.
Beyond this basic understanding and a model to consult if a person is behaving in a damaging way, there isn’t that much value to labels. What is more important is the person’s behavior: What are they doing that is harming themselves or others?
How do we recognize and address harmful behaviors?
Psychologists and psychiatrists are still arguing over that exact question. The tool they use to diagnose, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), has been revised and rewritten several times. It’s currently in its brand new fifth edition (DSM-5), although each edition has undergone multiple revisions. The current is like DSM 5.0, and there will be a 5.1 someday.
Each time the DSM is revised, its definition of a mental disorder changes. Now, they’re even discussing removing the term “mental disorder” because it implies a Cartesian mind-body separation. That seems like an alteration many Pagans would agree with. Generally, the disorder must cause distress or disability, making it difficult to fit into society. More, the behavior should not be a response to understandable stressors (like death of a loved one), is not just a deviance from what society expects (that’s helpful for anyone whose ever been to a festival!), and the label should help inform treatment. You can see the DSM-5 version here, and feel free to compare it to the previous version (DSM-IV-TR) here.
This is a decent, but ever-evolving model. The key for a group leader should come right out of that main criterion: Is the behavior damaging to the group or making it hard for the person to fit in. Assuming the leader is not qualified to diagnose the person, this is really the only piece that matters. Are people complaining? Is there a pattern? Do you have written rules the person is violating? Have you warned the person and/or suggested they get help? Have they sought help? Does the behavior continue? If it does, it may be time to compassionately separate the person from the group.
Can we address mental health issues without scapegoating the mentally ill?
No. You probably aren’t qualified. The key is behavior. You can address a behavior, but with a mental illness all you can do is offer resources. Shauna said it in her article: “Sometimes bad behavior gets inappropriately blamed on mental illness, when that isn’t the problem; some people are just jerks.”
Besides, unless that person comes to you with a written diagnosis, chances are you won’t know about any mental illness anyway. You’ll have to figure it out after observing a recurring pattern of behavior over time, and we’re right back to discussing behavior. It’s actually probably more helpful to evaluate behaviors without that filter of a diagnosis, for reasons already discussed. All you can do is notice the pattern, perhaps compare it to some of the common disorders, suggest help, and hope they take it. If they choose not to, and the damaging behavior continues, then you’re not scapegoating – especially if you aren’t aware of any diagnostic label.
Written rules are helpful here. If, after a series of complaints, you can compassionately point out to the person which written rules they are violating and give them a chance to change their behavior, you can avoid scapegoating without going down the mental illness road. Written rules and a list of local mental health resources seem vital here.
How do we know when we’re over our head?
If a person is suffering from a severe mental illness, then you already are. If you focus on behavior as already mentioned, and help the person take steps toward health then you’re doing more than most people do for the mentally ill. A continuing pattern of damaging behavior may lead to the person being removed, and that is necessary for the health of the group. If you’ve provided resources for them to heal, then you have help to keep your head above water.
You may be able to avoid this by working with the person’s actions and how they affect the group. If your rules state that a pattern of complaints leads to certain consequences after due process, then the person will probably either heal or be removed before you’re fully over your head. This takes clear, firm communication with the person and an explanation of where further behavior may lead. There’s no clear answer here, but ultimately you’re over your head if the person’s behavior is keeping the group from doing its work.
Again, I’m no leader, so some of these suggestions may seem naïve to those who are. That’s OK. I still think that if we evaluate a person based on a consistent pattern of actions and the effect of those actions on the group, we’re in a better position of dealing with the issue than making attempts to assess someone’s state of mental health. Heck, psychiatrists even question the very concept of “mental health” and are beginning to suggest a more pagan-friendly mind-body view. If we take their cue and focus more on the interaction of behavior, mind, and relationships, it will allow us a comprehensible way to deal with potential illness that maintains both your compassion for the person and your responsibilities to the group.