There’s an elephant in the room. Pagan communities allow completely inexcusable behavior by leaders, teachers, and group members. There’s a range mental health issues (particularly untreated mental illness) that we don’t talk about that add to this problem.
You’ve probably heard about the arrest of Pagan author/presenter/musician Kenny Klein for possession of child pornography. Following his arrest, many Pagans came forward alleging that when they were teenagers, Kenny sexually abused them.
We have a huge problem in our overlapping Pagan communities. We enable unacceptable behavior from participants, leaders, and teachers. In my observation, this is the root cause of at least 75% of groups that explode/implode.
This article covers potentially triggering topics.
Most Pagan groups ignore and excuse harmful behavior, or repeatedly try to “fix” the perpetrator. Solutions recommended by leadership resource books like “Antagonists in the Church” include identifying people engaging in harmful, dysfunctional behavior (focusing on specific mental illnesses), and then working to contain them–or kicking them out of the group.
Yet, mental illness also is a social justice issue. Many people with mental health issues don’t seek help because they fear being judged, or because they can’t afford help.
For that matter, sometimes bad behavior gets inappropriately blamed on mental illness, when that isn’t the problem; some people are just jerks.
- 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?
Mental Health and Social Justice
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for years. I discovered that food issues (particularly gluten and dairy) were core causes, but I was afraid to seek help because of the stigma.
Many people with mental illness receive poor medical treatment. It may take years to get the correct diagnosis. For many with mental illness like depression or Bipolar, the symptoms can make it harder to seek treatment.
Bipolar is an example of a mood disorder that is potentially very treatable, but someone with untreated Bipolar can be incredibly problematic in a small group. One person I know took a cocktail of 8 medications and fought with her psychiatrist; she didn’t feel right, the meds made her sluggish. Her life improved significantly when her medications were adjusted, but she needed moral support to stand up to her psychiatrist.
Another person with Bipolar knows exactly what medication works for her. Unfortunately, the generic version does not work for her, so she has to pay out of pocket–hundreds of dollars a month. Without that medication, she’s not functional.
Let’s say you have Bipolar or depression, and it’s managed with medication and therapy but you don’t have health insurance and go off your meds. Your lose your job. Now you really can’t afford it. You apply for jobs, but your mental health deteriorates. There might be some clinics where you could get help, but the anxiety is overwhelming. You don’t know how to get help, so you hide/avoid/shut down. It gets worse until you’re in such a terrible state that even friends and group members who would otherwise have helped you get sick of dealing with you.
So what do we do? We don’t want to kick out a community member who needs support; in fact, when they are going through something, it’s time to offer assistance.
Yet there are many harmful behaviors, some connected to mental illness, that are inexcusable. Sometimes the only solution to sustain group health is to remove someone.
Many of these are Pagans that we want to be able to help, and yet, most Pagan groups lack the resources to offer much mental health support. It’s also important to understand that there are some mental health issues that are beyond anyone’s ability to help.
The Collapsing Group Story
Once, there was a group leader working one-on-one with a woman diagnosed with Bipolar, and treated with therapy and medication. This woman frequently stopped taking medication and acted in a way that was harmful to the other group members. The group leader spent countless hours working with her and burned out. One by one, people left the group, and she couldn’t tell them, “___ has Bipolar and I’m working with her,” because that would have broken confidentiality.
How long did this go on? Ten years. Yes, ten years. Likely 10-20 people left the group because of the dysfunctional behavior.
I’ve heard examples like this all across the country. What this leader wanted to know is, “How do I fix this well-meaning seeker who has tremendous mental health issues?”
There isn’t always a “fix.” Ultimately, some people with mental illness manage it and can be a strong part of a group–and some folks will continue to be disruptive. In Pagan communities we often lack the resources that larger/more established churches have to assist struggling community members.
What Do You Do?
There aren’t many options. If the person acting out stays in the group, the group will implode or explode. It’s just a matter of time.
It’s worth pointing out that some of the people exhibiting the most damaging behaviors are often themselves Pagan leaders and teachers.
Removing someone from the group may cut them off from a support structure. However, even if the person is well-meaning, if they continue to engage in harmful behavior, it’s time to remove them. When booting someone from your group, if appropriate, help them connect to mental health resources (if they don’t already have that).
If the person engaging in that particular pendulum swing of behavior is the group leader, the only option you have is to leave the group. Confronting them will not change their behavior.
Hostile Group Member
I know of three separate groups that imploded/dissolved because of the behaviors of one woman hopping from group to group. She started attending events my group was hosting. At first she was nice. Then she’d talk to people about things that made them obviously uncomfortable. She began to complain privately, and later publicly, about our events. She asked to join our leadership team and we turned her down. She wrote harassing public emails. She wrote scathing, abusive emails to the group leaders of another group, but then was smiles and sweetness the next time they saw her.
Her behavior was…baffling.
Another group leader and I met with her in person. We talked for about two hours. (The buddy system is important for meetings with a potentially hostile/unstable person.)
Agitated, she talked about how her “friends” did not feel welcome. Later, we determined that she’d never attended with any friends. We also discovered that she has two relatives diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m not qualified to diagnose her, but I didn’t need a diagnosis to identify that this woman was acting well outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.
However, knowing that her behavior was potentially related to a mental illness allowed me to stop trying to make rational sense of her actions. This is one of the core traps of logical, reasonable people. When you’re reasonable, you expect others to be reasonable.
Here’s an article identifying this tendency: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10737827/Psychopaths-how-can-you-spot-one.html
I address this in Part 1 of my Pagans/Predators series: http://shaunaaura.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/of-pagans-and-predators-part-1/
Other groups had kept this woman as a member because they didn’t want to be “mean,” or provoke her to outrage by kicking her out. They chose to pacify her, which led to those groups breaking apart because people left. Nobody wanted to be around her toxic behavior.
In my group’s case, we held the line on appropriate behavior.
We did face a difficulty. One of our values was inclusivity, yet including this woman meant accepting behavior that went beyond our stated agreements. Despite repeated attempts to address her behavior, she continued to act out.
This was another example where the appropriate action is removing the person from the group. In fact, any time someone is acting in hostile, abusive way, generally that’s the right call. (In some instances, that person may be able to return to the group after they’ve addressed their behavior with actual psychological help, but it greatly depends.)
Again, if it’s the group leader or a teacher who is acting this way, leave the group. If it’s a teacher at an event, report the behavior to the event coordinator.
Dealing With Bad Behavior
In the Pagan community, we don’t want to kick people out for being weird. And that’s commendable, because let’s face it–we have a lot of odd folks. However, we also make way too much room for people to engage in behavior that climbs past the gray area of “iffy” and into damaging, harmful and predatory.
In fact, we don’t want to believe that Pagans are capable of such actions. But we are. I have heard dozens (yes, dozens) of accounts of Pagan group leaders and teachers who have engaged in emotionally and sexually abusive behaviors.
In this article I detailed issues of sex, ethics, and abuse in the Pagan community:
In my leadership articles on my main blog I’ve talked about behavior that’s outside the agreements of your group, as well as specific “red flags” for some types of mental illness. Let me be clear–I’m not a psychology professional. I’m not qualified to clinically diagnose someone.
However, I truly feel that anyone in a position of leadership–particularly small and grassroots leadership–needs to have a basic understanding of the types of mental illness out there, especially major personality disorders, and issues of abuse including sexual abuse, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, and child sexual abuse.
There’s a huge difference between someone who has depression or anxiety and someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Or someone with Aspergers who doesn’t get some body language cues, and someone who is a sexual predator targeting children.
There’s a lot of gray area. Someone diagnosed with PTSD may be acting in a way that is incredibly inappropriate to the group–and, with love and support may be able to find their center. But if someone is consistently acting in a way that is harmful to others, asking them to take a hiatus from the group, or removing them entirely, may be the right option.
I find the “three strikes” guideline works fairly well, depending on the severity/violence/disruptiveness of the behavior.
What’s challenging is that almost every group leader is volunteering and may have neither time nor training to offer pastoral counseling to community members.
The further challenge is when Pagan group leaders try to help people that are way beyond their scope, such as people with Antisocial Personality Disorder (psychopathy), people who sexually abuse children, and other issues of that gravity.
There are mental illnesses that a small group leader may be able to offer support for. There are other mental illnesses that no amount of Reiki, chanting, spellwork, or even pastoral counseling will help with.
For that matter, there are some mental illnesses that there are no cures for at all, like Antisocial PD or people who have sexually abused children. On a recent episode of Pagan Musings Podcast, Cat Chapin-Bishop, who has a professional background in the field, stressed that there are therapies that can help sex offenders reduce their risk around children, but there are no cures.
Identifying Red Flags
Like most group leaders, I’m not a mental health professional. However I’m fully qualified to notice behavioral red flags.
I’ve found that for practical application in a group, it’s less important to identify a specific mental illness, and more important to observe, “Are their behaviors consistently damaging to the group?”
Understanding things like personality disorders, addiction, abuse, and other mental health issues becomes important in connecting the dots of those red flags. It’s in the consistent pattern of harmful behavior that you can determine if someone has an issue that you/your group can offer support for, or if they are on the more dangerous side of the spectrum.
People with specific mental illnesses, abusers, and sexual predators rely on people’s tendency to be codependent and make excuses for their behavior.
In fact–what I’ve often found is that I get more complaints of, “That guy is creepy,” from someone with Asperger Syndrome (part of the Autism spectrum). However, the person who’s more damaging to the group is the charming, charismatic person with Antisocial PD.
Someone who might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder might initially be really friendly and helpful. In one situation–which I can only encapsulate as a total leadership disaster and I’m glad I know better now–someone whom I suspect has Narcissistic PD began with over-the-top friendliness. Buying dinners, offering to take leaders on a “spa day” or for a “girls party,” paying excessively lavish compliments.
This becomes a “fealty” relationship. Ie, “If I do this for you, then you’ll like me, and you now owe me your love and time and attention.” These are folks with poor self worth. They only feel good about themselves when other people “reflect” them as positive.
Someone like this will work their way into a position of power and authority in a group, and then work to supplant and undermine leaders…gossip, rumors, gaslighting, etc.
The challenge is that people may believe them. “But they are so nice, they took me to dinner.”
Usually by the time you identify a Narcissist by their backstabbing behavior, it’s too late and cutting them out of your group is going to cause a rift. People have already taken sides. However, this is why it’s important to understand the red flags, and to act as quickly as you can to remove a harmful group member. The Narcissist is not someone you can help or heal.
The problem is that many of the most dangerous mental illnesses –the ones that are well beyond any group leader’s scope in working with–are the ones that can be the hardest to detect.
Worse–I have experienced thatmany of the problematic Pagan leaders and teachers out there exhibit some of the red flags of abusive behavior or mental illness like Antisocial or Narcissistic PD.
Dealing with this requires discernment. Here are a few spectrums you might use to make a judgment call.
Can be Managed ——————————————————Cannot be Managed
Some mental illnesses have effective therapies, others don’t. Understanding the differences in the red flags can help you determine whether this is someone you can help and support, or someone that is beyond your scope.
Anyone engaging in consistently abusive or sexually harassing ways is a pretty serious red flag, and anyone sexually abusing children or adults should not only be removed from your group/event immediately, but should also be referred to the police.
Not very Dangerous ——————————————————-Incredibly dangerous
What’s the level of danger? Someone with depression or Aspergers is probably not a danger to the members of your group. Someone with Narcissism or Antisocial Personality Disorder is more of a danger.
I’ll stress that it’s less important to identify the specific mental illness–it’s more important to understand the patterns of harmful behavior. Understanding mental illnesses offers a ruler, of sorts, for red flags in patterns of behavior.
There are a number of gray areas. Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder might be incredibly damaging. However, there are folks using specific therapies that manage their behavior that are a positive addition to a group. Similarly, someone with the right regimen can manage their Bipolar.
Someone who is consistently harmful is beyond your scope.
Correcting Behavior —————————————–Multiple Escalating Incidents
There’s a difference between someone who is open to correcting their behavior, and someone who continually acts out.
With sexual harassment, there are folks who aren’t socially savvy who might invade someone’s personal space without permission. If you address the behavior with them and they’re willing to accept the negative impact of their action and work to respect personal boundaries, that’s probably not someone who’s going to be a problem. Someone who verbally abuses you for daring to confront them is probably not someone that you want to attend your events.
A recovered addict may be totally fine in many groups. And, an addict who continually falls off the wagon and engage in abusive behavior is a problem.
Depending on the severity of the behavior, for most things I look at the “three strikes” model. If I talk to someone and they are working to improve their behavior, I can usually tell. If someone just continues acting out, that’s a clear sign that it’s time to remove them from the group.
One caveat–some people pretend to correct their behavior in order to keep up their abuse. That’s why it’s important to track what’s going on and notice the pattern.
Another factor is compulsive behaviors. People with Borderline PD are known for compulsive, irrational actions. Similarly, many of the people who sexually abuse children may genuinely try to not to, but they find themselves unable to stop.
Addictive or abusive behavior often follows a pattern of an outburst of verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, followed by a period of remorse. The victims often fall for the remorse and further enable the abuser. And it’s not that the remorse isn’t genuine. But at some point, the behavior makes it clear that this person should no longer be in your group. If you find yourself continuing to make excuses for bad behavior, it’s time to remove them.
I believe in trying to help someone who needs help. However, my ultimate responsibility is to the health of the group, and there are many situations where I wish I could help someone find healing, but they are far beyond my scope.
It’s important to establish personal and group boundaries–a set of clearly defined agreements for what is acceptable behavior within your group/event, and what is not. And then to hold those boundaries. When someone acts outside of them, directly and compassionately address their actions. If the behavior continues, be willing to remove them.
It’s tough to find the balance of offering a support structure for a community member going through a rough time, and removing people for inappropriate behavior.
Most Pagan groups don’t have trained pastoral counselors or therapists on tap. Sometimes the only thing you can do for someone is help them connect to mental health resources like a local clinic–however, in the current health care climate, there often aren’t even resources for that.
Often times someone struggling with addiction,abusive behavior, or other mental illness is in denial of their own actions. Until someone is willing to acknowledge that they have a problem, you cannot help them.
Holding love and compassion for someone who harmed others, but acknowledging that their behavior may mean removal from the group.
Some groups are really quick to exile someone when all they needed was some love and attention. But I’d say the vast majority of Pagans will bend over backwards to make space for abusive and harassing behavior. I’ve seen group after group break themselves enabling one consistently disruptive person–especially abusive group leaders. (I’ve done this myself.)
Pagans want to heal people, but you can’t fix anyone. You can love them and offer help….But you cannot make anyone get help.
Many Pagan groups allow inexcusable behavior. I don’t support kicking someone out for an honest mistake, and I’m not on a crusade against everyone with mental illness. But I don’t support abuse and poisoning the well for the community. It’s crucial that we identify our boundaries–what’s appropriate for our groups, for ourselves?
The Future of our Communities
I always stress doing your own personal work as leaders. Therapy and personal shadow work has helped me to move past some of the mental health issues that made me a poorer leader. Each of us needs to work on our own issues to build healthier communities. One of my mentors was fond of saying that your group can’t be healthier than you are. Think about that for a moment.
Our future depends on the choices we make now. Let’s not kick every weird person out–but let’s ensure that we don’t give the predators a hunting ground. Sometimes this means helping someone get access to mental health resources. Sometimes that means removing someone.
If your group isn’t healthy and stable enough to last because of the actions of a few–you won’t be able to help more people down the line. I think one of the reasons so few Pagan groups make it past the Forming and Storming development phases is because we enable so much bad behavior
How can we work together to make our groups inclusive and support those who need help, yet keep our groups safe and stable? How can we remove the stigma of mental illness so that community members can get more support, while not allowing the label of mental illness to be an excuse that allows for repeated harmful behavior?
This is an alchemical feat of magic…but it’s what is required of us if we want healthy Pagan communities to serve the generations to come.
Let’s all work together on our own mental health. Let’s do our personal work. Let’s remove that stigma of therapy. Let’s help community members get mental health assistance.
And, when someone is consistently harmful or abusive, let’s do the hard thing and remove them.
Shauna Aura Knight writes on the topics of community leadership, spiritual transformation, and activism. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and Spiritual Scents, as well as a contributor to many magazines and anthologies, as well as a fiction author and fantasy artist. Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, facilitation, leadership, and personal growth.