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Shamanism, Witchcraft, and Psychology

by Dr. Catherine Winther

There have been a lot of great articles lately regarding mental illness and psychology.

This is such an important discussion to keep open because so many people live with mental illness.

Yet, despite the pervasiveness of mental health issues the stigma surrounding it is disturbingly real. The western medical system frequently fails in the face of mental health, often because mental health is a reflection of our spiritual health.

The western world is spiritually lacking in understanding and respect for the lived spiritual experience.

I live with various health and mental health issues. I am also a retired psychologist and currently work as a spiritual counsellor.

I have terminal brain tumours, various other disabling health concerns, including mental health concerns such as depression and complex post-traumatic stress which brings with it hallucinations, panic attacks, etc.

While I take medications to deal with certain symptoms, I honour many aspects of what I experience as my spiritual journey.

My mental illness can be a real life threatening burden. Some days all I can do is hold on and survive.

My victory is breathing. But the pressure of my mental health issues can produce diamonds of epiphanies from the undue pressure of it all.

I am not at war with my mental illness, I am in conversation with it.

I’ll explain how the combination of psychology and spirituality has helped me achieve that peace of mind.

Cross cultural psychology is the branch of psychology that looks at the intersection of psychology and cultural differences including shamanism and witchcraft.

This vital arm of psychology explores and teaches us how to bring together our understanding of psychology and clients’ perspectives and beliefs about their experiences.

This complimentary and cooperative approach is essential for people’s mental health. Ignoring a person’s beliefs and perspectives invalidates and isolates.

It also limits our understanding of the world.

The sad thing is, by the time a client reached my office they have already lived a lifetime of being persecuted, bullied, and misunderstood because they are either witch or shaman etc.

It is not only the medical system that needs to shift but society as a whole.

There is a catch phrase that says: ‘Magick is just parts of the world science doesn’t understand—yet.’

This is by and large correct. There will always be things that are beyond the grasp of scientific understanding but it is important for to keep their minds open and respectful towards the lived experience of other people and other cultures.

If we close our minds to exploring and understanding other cultures we also close our minds to truth and knowledge.

Regardless of how a client may present, if they have a worldview whereby what they are experiencing is Shamanic visions and voices, then unless it is harming them or others, there is no reason to challenge another person’s worldview.

Because let’s face it, what a shaman, witch, wizard, druid etc., are experiencing could very well be real.

I know many of the visions and voices I hear, especially when working my oracles are real even though they are largely unverifiable.

My beliefs around witchcraft give my life deep meaning, tradition, and richness. My beliefs saved my life. When I was alone in hospital, panicking, hurting, and feeling like I was dying, all I had to hold on to was my witchcraft.

I understood that I was in the dark part of my journey, the shadowlands, the long dark night of the soul. My beliefs in nature and her cycles reminded me that light would come again. And it did.

Beliefs like Shamanism and Witchcraft and all of the visions and experiences that come with these views give meaning to the world.

Meaning is integral to a good life. It is the structure upon which we build our dreams and hopes.

To rob a person of meaning is harmful and not what psychologists are trained to do… But it happens regularly.

Cross cultural psychology is a rich area of study. It is also complex and can be hard to address everything when working with someone from a different cultural perspective.

That is why making sessions client based are so important.

In an ideal mental health system we would be able to address each client on an individual basis and take all of their cultural differences into account rather than trying to impress our labels and force them into mental hospitals.

Sadly, there isn’t time or resources to do this. Even the best psychologists I know struggle to offer the treatment, time, and care clients needed because of a lack of resources.

That is not to say that there are cases where a person, shaman or not, may be a real risk to others and themselves.

Keeping these people somewhere safe until they are no longer at risk is just common sense. Problems only arise when psychologists treat shamanism witchcraft etc., as purely mental health issues.

Spiritual beliefs are only mental health concerns if they negatively impact a persons’ daily functionality e.g., hearing voices telling you to quit your job, give away all that you own, hurt someone you love, become a messiah in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language etc.

The health system is far from perfect and often fails in the face of mental health issues.

There have been experiments done where they treated a patient with schizophrenia by taking them to Africa to work as a shaman, thus giving real meaning to his mental health experience.

This worked for him and treated him more effectively than putting him in a mental health intuition.

This Is not to say it would work for everyone, but we do know things like tradition, ritual, belief, community, rich personal mythos, and creativity all help give people meaning.

As such, a sacred and culturally respectful and open approach to mental health is vital for positive outcomes.

Let us not forget shamanism and witchcraft have a lot to help mental health issues.

We know altered states of conscious through mediation, chanting, and even micro doses of hallucinogens can help alleviate stress in the mind and build meaning.

Rituals can focus and slow the mind and bring a sense of groundedness. Having a rich and dynamic system of beliefs can be very stabilising and a good defence against the negative aspects of mental illness.

Spending time in nature immediately lowers stress hormones and can inspire awe-the most healing emotion of all.

I have also had success with soul retrieval when working with trauma.

Sadly, we don’t have these resources to implement this approach in the west.

We can only do our best through balancing issues of cultural beliefs, mental health, and safety together with the client as we build meaning.

As a retired psychologist I am aware of how my mental illness impacts me.

I take medication for panic attacks, nightmares, and depression. I also take pain medications. And that’s okay.

Those medications address and quieten the aspects of my anxiety and depression that are not helpful and diminish my power and presence in the world.

Through taking charge of my mental health and spiritual beliefs I designed a personal system of care for myself alongside my doctors and my elders.

Even in an imperfect system I am able to give light and breath to my spiritual experiences so I can share that part of myself with the world.

You are the one in charge of your mental and spiritual health. You have the power, right now.

The medical system is imperfect but you have the power to make use of that system.

If you are struggling with mental health, try and find open minded psychologist who can work with you to develop treatments that compliment your beliefs.

This can take time, you might see several psychologists before you find one on your level. Remember, there are psychologists that are shamans and witches, too.

I was a psychologist witch and successfully incorporated tarot and familiars into my clinical sessions. No matter what you believe, you can work the system to your advantage and live your best life where mental health is managed appropriately in all of its shadow and light aspects.

And if this sounds all too much, then find a friend to support you to go to sessions. You are not alone.

Hold on to this truth in your darkest hours, trust you have the power, you are not defined by your mental health issues just as you are not defined by your shamanic visions.

Underneath all of this is you, your pure soul, your power and your might. You can do this.

And finally, medication is not evil. If it helps you, it helps you.

No matter how we twist and change matter through science, everything humans create come from nature, including medications.

A witches’ role was partly being a herbalist and knowing how to use herbs, tinctures and potions to help people.

Society is just doing that on a much grander and precise scale now.

Taking medication does not diminish your power.

Mental health and spirituality can be complimentary.

We, the people, the witches and the shamans, have the ability to bring these two systems together and make them work for us so we can live our best life.

The power and responsibility currently lies with us. Take charge. Be powerful. Embrace all that you are.

You have a right to this life and a right to a healthy mind and a rich cultural tapestry.

Listen to your doctors, listen to your elders, and finally, listen to your gut.

 

IN CONCLUSION

If this essay resonates with you, please join our WITCH email list by using the forms on this website so we can stay in touch.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Catherine ‘West’ Winther is a retired psychologist and passionate LGBTQIA feminist who comes from a long family line of of creatrixes, witches, and wolves. Through her online coven at WeaverTarot.com she offers readings, spell-craft, curios, and counselling. Her passion is holding sacred shadow spaces and fostering alchemy through conversation. She aids healing and growth through encouraging big play, big magick, big nature, cackling, sensuality, and creativity.

 

featured image – shutterstock

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