Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

Bad Behavior: Beware the trap of mental illness labels


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?

Not much.

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.









Author: Tim

I am a teacher, a theater lover, and a High Priest in the Temple of Witchcraft. I love to point out the places where the everyday world, arts, science, and religion intersect. I stand for interfaith cooperation and the belief that people of all religions, political beliefs, and nationalities have more in common with each other than differences.

12 thoughts on “Bad Behavior: Beware the trap of mental illness labels

  1. Great post. I fully agree that the core of things is actually fairly simple–identify when a behavior is disruptive or harmful, and if it continues despite intervention, it’s time for that person to leave.

    Where I have personally found some of the understanding of specific mental illnesses to be useful is on two ends of the spectrum. On one hand, what’s often referred to as “creepy” behavior that is actually someone who might have Aspergers, a brain injury, a learning disability, ADD, or something else that makes them behave just a little differently. I’ll often get complaints about folks like this, particularly some specific behaviors: Lack of facial expression/smiling, encroaching on physical space, not respecting body language/desire for more space, or speaking at inappropriate times or on inappropriate topics.

    When I understood that these were not someone being creepy or rude, I was able to work with those folks more specifically. I’m still in the position where I may have to remove someone from the group if they, for instance, continue to invade people’s personal space, or if they continue speaking on inappropriate topics during a workshop (a specific example is a guy in a Dreamwork workshop who said something sexually shaming to another participant and has said a number of other things that were inappropriate). However, knowing more has helped me to be able to work with specific folks who were not “creepy people” to help them find a way to be able to stay in the group, usually by respecting body language.

    On the other side of the spectrum, knowing the “clusters” of red flags that typify Narcissistic PD, Borderline, and Antisocial PD, among others, has allowed me to see patterns in the red flags that I otherwise wouldn’t. As I said in my article, I’m not interested in diagnosing so much as noticing, “Uh oh, that person’s lighting up the board on this type of bad behavior. They do that,, that, this, oh, and that too.”

    For me it’s almost more of a mnemonic device for the behaviors; having a few names in my head for that particular cluster gives me an easier way to cluster those red flags.

    At the end of the day, it really isn’t relevant to me or to the group if the person is a Narcissist or Antisocial PD or someone with Bipolar who will not seek help or a serial abuser…if they keep hurting people, I’m going to have to remove them from my group.

    You’re absolutely correct that having a *written* document with appropriate/inappropriate behaviors is crucial. It’s amazing how many people don’t have anything like that, or who haven’t even talked about “what’s ok in our group.” I talk about the importance of that a lot in leadership workshops, and let’s face it. That’s a pain in the butt to create. But, when something goes wrong–and it eventually will–you really want that set of agreements.


    • I agree. Understanding some basic red flags is very important. Doesn’t mean you label, just that you’ve noticed potential problems. That is the value of diagnostic labels and why I believe every leader should be familiar with the basics.

      We often resist formal leadership and ministerial training on the grounds that it’s *too Christian* but as we grow, we’ll need more and more responsible educated leaders. Other clergy have training in these issues. Even with a different model, we should be too.

  2. Reblogged this on Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch and commented:
    Great article! I reblogged Shauna Aura Knight’s post; I’ll reblog this one too. I know far too many people with mental illness diagnoses not to appreciate the danger of pigeonholing and marginalizing as a result.

  3. A significant post indeed. I think you should explore this topic further. How do you see our magical practice interacting with mental issues? Are there particular safeguards we should take for ourselves and others when working in Circles? How do modern psychological tools and taxonomies relate to more ancient systems like the Tarot and Astrology?

    • That’s a great idea, Scott. I may just explore those topics. Shauna Knight might be better qualified when it comes to in-circle safeguards from a leadership standpoint, but there may be some psychological contributions.

      • It depends on what you mean by safeguards. If you mean magical safeguards, that’s not really something I work with. I tend to work more with here-and-now behaviors. If someone’s acting in a harmful way toward the group, then I have a responsibility to check in with them, and perhaps eject them from the group.

        However, as far as here-and-now behaviors goes, I do rather a lot of work around that. The core of it is pretty simple–it’s letting people know what’s acceptable and what’s not. There’s typically some things I don’t have to state. “Don’t start punching each other.” That’s pretty well assumed.

        However, most of my events are dry, so I used to explicitly state “no drugs or alcohol.” In Chicago, I don’t really state that on emails/flyers because it’s never been a problem. However, for any workshop or ritual, I’ll usually offer my standard set of group agreements. For ritual, that includes letting people know that while we are connecting together in a circle, people can go to the bathroom if they need to, or step outside for some air, as long as they come back with respect. The basic agreement is I ask for people to attend to their own needs; if they are cold, come closer to the fire. If they are thirsty, there’s where they can get water. If they need to sit, they can. The agreement is for self responsibility.

        Agreements for intense work include emotional self responsibility. Those agreements are more complex. Basically I might articulate the theme of the ritual/intensive. Maybe we’re going to the Underworld to release an old wound from our past. I ask people to not try and fix anyone–if someone’s crying, letting them have their process, not go over and try to hug someone and “fix” them. (It’s not actually fixing, it’s derailing both people’s process.) On the flip side, I tell people that if they are crying and upset and they’d like a hug, that they can ask for that. I offer that in my case, if I’m crying and someone comes over to try and hug me, it’s not going to help me, it’s going to make me feel like I need to stop crying.

        Similarly, if someone’s focused on “fixing” me, it’s derailing them from doing their own work there in the Underworld. But, it points to how difficult many people find it to just sit there and be uncomfortable while someone else cries.

        And then I follow it all up with the info that if someone’s curled up on the floor wailing, I’m going to assume that’s what they need for their process. I’m not going to come over and try to tend them. However–if anyone comes to the end of the ritual and needs a little help coming back, or processing anything, that I and other facilitators are there for that. But I do ask people to be generally self responsible and not do work that is too much for them to do in that context.

        That’s a pretty specific, intensive example, but basically it follows the general axiom of, if you don’t ask for it, then you won’t get the behavior you want.

        I have other more general agreements, such as, asking people to be considerate about how much time they are taking up in a meeting or workshop during discussions or checking in, asking for mutual respect and not interrupting others, or not offering advice to someone’s check in unless they have permission, a few other things.

        If people are behaving in ways that are aberrant to this, I might interrupt that behavior. Like if someone’s going on and on and I need to move on with a workshop or ritual, I’ll interrupt them. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they just lost track and were rambling, but, I also check in with them after and ask them to be more aware of how much of a chunk of time they are taking up.

        If the behavior is significantly outside the realm of what’s ok in a ritual, I may try to find a way to keep someone calm during a ritual and address it after. If I really had to, I’d eject someone from a ritual. I haven’t ever had to. One guy had an episode during a ritual; he was medicated for anger management and he started swearing, rocking back and forth, seething, ramping up to get violent. My cofacilitator pulled the guy over to the altar/station I was managing and told the guy to give his anger to Brigid’s Forge (I was Brigid at the Forge) and in that case, it worked, but I wouldn’t have allowed that guy into a future ritual without significant conversation and assurances first.

        Hope that helps!

      • Thanks Shauna. That’s what I meant about you being able to offer a ritual facilitation perspective that I don’t have as much of.

        So here’s a question: how about when an experienced practitioner vocally defies your ritual setup: ie correspondences you have chosen, ground rules you have set up? Instead of talking to you privately, the person announces their issues for all to hear as the ritual is beginning. Potential personality disorder, potential jerk; but it doesn’t matter- you have to carry on with the ritual and give other participants the best experience possible.

      • You ask all the fun questions, Tim. There’s two answers to this. When someone vocally defies the ritual setup and gets confrontational about it, that is probably one of the most challenging things to facilitate. Harder than dealing with an altar on fire.

        What I can honestly say is that if your facilitator has basic competence and confidence, and sets up their agreements for behavior, this type of thing rarely happens. Like, really rarely. I’ve heard some horror stories of it happening, but I’ll be honest–this hasn’t yet happened to me. And, I often facilitate rituals that might invite this sort of challenge.

        The less aggressive version of this is the sort of standard heckling/know-it-all when facilitating a workshop. I don’t typically have that happen either, though in a workshop it’s a lot easier to shut someone down if they are interrupting. If I’ve set up the agreement asking people to not interrupt each other, and if I’ve set up the agreement asking people to keep their contributions brief…heck. Even if I haven’t set up that agreement, if someone is being contradictory, or playing know it all, there’s really 2 ways to handle it depending on how aggressive they are.

        1. If they aren’t really aggressive and are making a decent point, particularly if they seem actually knowledgeable, I’ll say something like, “You seem to know a lot more about the Occult ____ of tarot, and I just want to reiterate that for the purposes of this workshop, I’m working more with the personal growth aspect of Tarot cards. And there’s a number of exercises I promised I’d do as part of this workshop so I want to go ahead an move on to the next topic, but if you can stick around after the workshop, maybe folks who are interested in talking about Occult ____ can ask you some questions.” This one’s more of a, someone’s making a good point but it’s derailing the class.

        2. If someone’s continually interrupting me or being otherwise rude in contradicting me, I will be a little more direct. Again, if I’ve set up agreements, this happens rarely but it does happen. If they are making a good point, I acknowledge it, but I would say something like, “So I just want to refresh our agreements here together for not interrupting. I hear that you ___person’s name__ have a lot that you seem to want to say, and I’m glad you’re excited by the topic, but the focus of this workshop is on ____. I’m going to ask you to hold your comments until the end and I’d be happy to talk more then about your specific ___issue/topic__. I have a lot of material to cover for this workshop and I want to make sure I cover what I promised.” And, if they pull the KnowItAll/interrupting again, I’ll interrupt them. “I’m not going to address that at this point because ____ topic, and I again ask you to hold off on tangents so that we can keep on track for the workshops. I want to remind you of the agreements to not be disruptive.” Depending on the room layout, I might use body language, like standing next to that participant. Strike 3, I ask them to leave, but that hasn’t happened.

        Typically, I hear of the ritual interruptus sort of thing happening when someone who is trained in a particular branch of Wicca has an issue with how someone is doing a ritual. I’ve heard of ADF druids having a local Wiccan priestess go off on them for failing to cast a circle. And I’ve heard of other scenarios that basically run out as, the ritual has started, and a well-known local leader literally steps into the center and loudly says some version of, “You’re doing it wrong.”

        Again, I haven’t had to deal with this, and my response would greatly depend on the energy of the room and the hostility of the person. However, assuming that we’re at a public ritual with 50+ people, many that I don’t know, and they are all kind of shocked by this, and assuming that the person has just a vague edge of hostility…I might approach it like this. Assuming it’s me they are interrupting and not one of my ritual team, I’d turn to face them, perhaps step closer to them. And I’d say something like, “The ritual format I’m using is pretty common to several different traditions and I’m really confident that the way I’ve set things up are going to work for this ritual and for this group. But, I can see that this ritual probably isn’t going to work for you, and your actions are a pretty significant breach of our agreements here together for mutual respect. And with respect, I’m going to ask you to leave this space. Energy like this is not welcome here.”

        (Depending on hostility, they might interrupt me before I get that far, of course.)

        I’d probably ask everyone else to take a breath and take a step back, and then I’d escort the person out or engage some of my team members in doing that. Then, of course, there’s the work of re-centering and focusing the group. People don’t tend to emotionally deal well with conflict like that, but asking people to reconnect, take a breath. Re-stating the agreements. Asking people what they need to feel safe. Perhaps inviting them to sing a tone with me to help recenter. There’s a way to do it, it just takes time.

        Most of the time, what happens is the person interrupting ends up being someone really intimidating, like someone who has been leading a group for 20-30 years but who has issues. And it’s usually a younger, less confident facilitator who is getting bullied on. The key is to stay calm, project competence and confidence, and clearly state the agreements and the consequences for not upholding them.

  4. Tim and Shauna: you should front page Shauna’s responses either here or at Shauna’s site (though the link her site is not working at all for me today).

    Shauna, these are obviously great points for open and public ritual. Any additional considerations about closed rituals or, perhaps, more long-term coven practices?

    • Literally as this popped into my inbox, I was copying and pasting my responses with the idea of creating a blog post on advanced facilitation interventions 🙂

      With closed rituals and long-term coven practices, you actually have a lot of advantages. And, one key disadvantage. In my Pagan Activist blog post on mental health that Tim responded to, in the first part of the article I offer the example of the group leader working with a woman diagnosed with Bipolar. She worked with that woman for 10 years to the overall detriment of herself as a leader and to her group. This would be the disadvantage of closed groups and covens–when we know someone well, we want to make space for them to heal, we have more invested in each other, and it’s harder to cut someone off. We get into that codependent dance with them–and it’s because we want them to be able to be involved. These are, I would say, the hardest people to cut out of a group, because it’s not that they’re terrible people. It’s just that their actions are consistently destructive to the group.

      I wrote about this a bit on my regular blog–ie, some of the specific red flag behaviors that a group leader–particularly of a smaller more intimate group or a leadership team–will want to keep an eye out for:

      The advantage of the coven/closed group relationship is pretty specific–you know people more intimately. These aren’t just random people coming in for a public ritual, these are people you’ve worked with before. These people become acquaintances and even close friends, depending on the intensity of the work.

      While I’ve never been part of a coven, the monthly intensives at Diana’s Grove had a similar feel because, after attending events for a year, everyone knows who you are. Everyone knows what baggage you’re working with. Everyone knows each other, and even though the intensives were groups of 30-50, many of us became close friends.

      With the advantage of knowing someone, and with the advantage of seeing someone’s behaviors playing out long-term vs. just at the occasional public event, you have the opportunity to address those behaviors with someone. This is especially useful for folks in that gray-zone of, doing some things that are somewhat inappropriate, but, they can probably address their behavior. Vs. the folks that are really acting out in ways that it’s pretty clear aren’t going to change.

      A quick example–maybe it’s a group that puts on public rituals, or, a group that puts on an annual Pagan Pride, or even just a coven where different people are expected to take different ritual roles or do different organizing of rituals or classes for the coven. If there’s someone who frequently takes on a job and then drops the ball, that’s something where eventually a leader-type person will need to have a conversation with them and outline:

      “In the past year I’ve noticed that you’ve taken on tasks X, Y, and Z, and each time you were very excited to step in and help, and each time you did not complete the task and someone else had to do the task instead. The impact that this has is that the people who have to step in and do the task have a lot less planning and preparation, and, they also already have other tasks they are responsible for. I’m guessing that isn’t the impact you want to have, so let’s talk about what’s going on.”

      If you look at the “Conflict Resolution Part 6” blog post, there’s a lot there about behaviors that in and of themselves aren’t terrible, but added together they become a problem.

      The idea is that with a longer-term group, folks are more close-knit and there’s more opportunity to see patterns in our fellow group members. The disadvantage is that usually this ends up being an exercise in enablement; people would rather excuse someone’s poor behavior than confront them about it. However, with the right group agreements and skilled facilitation, this can be more of an opportunity to work with someone’s behavior and express the impact of that behavior. If the person can change the behavior they can become a stronger part of the group. If they continue engaging in red flag behavior, then it’s time to consider removing them from the group.

  5. Thanks, Shauna. Be sure to drop a link here if you do chunk this all together. It matches well with things my teacher taught, and how we do things over here in our tiny tradition.

    Of course, if you remove them from the group, then they may well become someone else’s problem. We had one case in my training group where a member would cry out as the energy overloaded her. She apparently had sought a more typical medical diagnoses and it was not Tourette’s. My teacher endured the outcries for 2 semesters, but did kick her out thereafter. I liked her, but it was distracting. I did run into her at a later Feri event, and she did find another teacher in that Trad. I don’t know if she ever found a way to channel that energy.

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