Spirituality can be one of the most valuable resources that people have, on their healing journey. Positive effects of religion on mental health have been well documented. People who attend religious services have been shown to live an average of 7-14 years longer than people who do not. The benefits of spiritual community have been so well-recognized that Atheists and free-thinkers are finding ways to build that community for themselves.
It is vitally important for a counselor to support their clients’ spirituality, however they may define or express that. Most therapists will say that they do this, and for the most part, they are sincere. They can meet challenges, however, when they run into spiritual practices that are unfamiliar for them. The therapist may give off a “vibe” of being uncomfortable even when they have good intentions. This can lead to clients feeling guarded about their spirituality, afraid to discuss it even when it is relevant to their mental health. It can also lead to them terminating therapy prematurely, and feeling uncomfortable with seeking therapy again.
This is an experience often reported by people who identify as Pagan, Wiccan or Earth-based in their spiritual tradition. The clinical community has taken some steps in the right direction. Wicca is becoming more accepted as a spiritual path. I was pleased to see that the Wings Foundation mentions Wicca in their chapter on Spirituality, in the member handbook. While I would prefer to see some recognition that not all Pagans are Wiccan, the inclusion reflects an understanding that most alternative religions are life-affirming and supportive. This is contrary to the dangerous stereotypes perpetuated by a small handful of Christians, who were raised to believe that Pagan ritual is ritual abuse.
For a trauma-informed counselor, the term “ritual abuse” brings up nightmarish visions of unimaginable cruelty. These images can be haunting. It can lead us to experiencing a sense of protective outrage on our clients’ behalf. It can also lead us to have some apprehension when clients mention that they are part of a fringe religious group. Is it a positive support network, or an abusive cult? Having worked with members of the Pagan community, I can assure you that it is most likely the former. That said, reports of abusive groups are not unheard of, and I am always deeply saddened to hear about religious leaders that abuse their power. These occurrences seem not to discriminate based on tradition. Abusive acts are perpetrated by Protestant ministers or Catholic priests as well. Abuse by religious leaders is always unconscionable, and counselors need to have awareness of what does (and does not) constitute an abusive situation.
Here are some things to be aware of:
-Hierarchies: If the organization has a “high priest” or “high priestess”, what does the client’s relationship to that person look like? Most high priests or priestesses earn their title by doing a tremendous amount of personal and spiritual work. They may provide valuable services such as spiritual mentorship, weddings, baby blessings or rights of passage. In a healthy group structure, the leader will relate to their duties with dedication and humility.
-Money: Is the group asking for more money than they need, to keep the organization functioning? There may be member dues or occasional requests for donations. This covers the cost of ritual space, supplies and printer ink for educational materials. It is also important to remember that some spiritual teachers spend a tremendous amount of time and energy doing their work. It is reasonable to charge for classes or other professional services that are offered. However, if the organization demands a huge financial sacrifice on the part of members, this is a red flag.
-Sex: Many Pagan groups honor sexuality as sacred, when it takes place between consenting adults. This may very well be a part of ritual, for some people. It should never be a requirement for initiation or membership in a group.
-Secrecy: If there is a vow of secrecy, there may be a good reason for it. Some Pagan organizations involve intense personal work, and this work cannot occur without trust between members. There is also a widely held belief that revealing details of rituals may interfere with the energy of the group. If a client does not want to tell you about what happens in ritual, you will need to respect that boundary.
In a sense, all therapists take a vow of secrecy, by virtue of beginning our practices. We know the damage that can be done by violating our client’s confidentiality. Sometimes, we all need to be selective about what we share with others. Empower your client’s decision to be selective, even with you.
Transparency: There should be some disclosure about why major group decisions are made, where the money goes, and how hierarchies are set up. Group leaders should be approachable, respectful of dissenting opinions and available for questions. While decision-making power might not always be “equal”, nobody should be treated as powerless or without value.
Relationship to non-group members: Be cautious about groups that look down upon other religious traditions, discourage members from joining other groups, or negatively impact relationships with those who are not part of the group. If your client starts to lose relationships with family or friends after joining the group, concern may be warranted.
I would like to call upon all counselors to use common sense, and apply basic clinical skills. Rather than evaluating a client’s spiritual practices based on a conventional understanding of religion, notice how the client relates to those practices. Do they talk about them with a sense of joy or excitement? How does their practice affect their lives, outside of ritual? Does it give them a sense of meaning and contentment? Remember, spiritual paths can be challenging, but any challenges that the client faces should enhance their lives in some way, even if the benefit is not immediately obvious to you.
Any competent therapist knows what trauma looks like. They know how to evaluate an abusive relationship. If the client’s ritual group resembles an abusive relationship, or they return from ritual with trauma symptoms, act accordingly. Unless these symptoms are showing up, then you have nothing to worry about.
Also, above all, remember that your alternatively spiritual clients are human. They will experience spiritual doubts and existential angst, just like anybody. For example, they may question whether the Gods exist. They may question why the Gods did not protect them from the traumas that occurred. They may get angry with their Gods, and may need to express that in therapy. Sound familiar? Any therapist who has dealt with grief knows what it is like to hold the space for a client who is angry at God, the Universe, or whatever higher power they have in their lives. Your job is not to question their beliefs or hold an agenda about how the internal conflict is resolved. Your job is unconditional positive regard. Everything else is just details.