Mental Illness & the Occult: Interview with David Hill
Over the years I had heard chatter that people who were mentally ill were somehow more drawn to the occult than neurotypical individuals. I laughed it off as hearsay, and assumed those I knew in the occult community acted as anecdotal evidence for what sounded like an insipid rumor.
I brought my concerns to David Hill. Out of anyone, I knew he would have some interesting opinions on the subject.
Hill serves as the president of the Electoral College for Ordo Templi Orientis. Him and his team make decisions on appointing masters for bodies. He has doctorate of clinical psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. He has been involved with O.T.O. since 1996 and acted in a leadership role in a number of bodies. He is also an active member in the Order’s Psychology Guild.
There is a stereotype that the mentally ill are drawn to the occult, what are your thoughts on this?
It is important to first describe “mental illness.” Everyone has various neuroses, traits, and features of mental illness. For example, sustained stress may create an anxious reaction in someone until that stress is reduced. Or someone may utilize counting behaviors in order to reduce stress. That does not necessarily mean that either individual meets criteria for an anxiety disorder or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mental illness occurs when the level of symptoms reach the point where they are actively interfering with the ability of an individual to function in their daily lives. For example, the aforementioned person with anxiety begins to have panic attacks with such frequency that they cannot leave their home and their employment is in jeopardy. Or a person becomes so depressed that they are not eating, are sleeping all day, not going to work, not keeping up with their hygiene, and are contemplating suicide. You can see the difference between an expected reaction to life stressors and the development of a mental disorder.
I should also differentiate between fairly standard mental disorders and more severe mental disorders. A large percentage of the population will experience a clinically significant depressive episode or clinically significant anxiety at some point in their lives. I’ve certainly experienced both. Those are very common and often relatively easy to treat. However, more serious mental disorders often require lifelong medication in order to keep symptoms suppressed. Psychotic disorders can be so confusing to a person that they cannot distinguish between reality and delusions. A full manic state as in Biploar I (as opposed to the more minor Bipolar II’s hypomania) may require hospitalization due to the individual engaging in risky and compulsive behaviors and even losing touch with consensus reality. Both conditions require medication to treat.
With that noted, I’ll state that in the past I’ve served as a lodge secretary and as the International Initiation Secretary for IHQ [International Headquarters.] If people wrote to the IHQ PO Box in Austin, TX, back around the turn of the century, chances are good that I was the one picking up the mail. I’ve certainly received my fair share of delusional letters and psychotic manifestos. I do think that we have a pretty average level of people with more standard mental disorders who develop an interest in the occult as compared with the general population. However, I think that the question was likely focused on people with more severe mental disorders.
I have run into more people with severe mental illness who are drawn to the occult than I’ve ever run into in the general population. That could be for several reasons. First, in the general population, people who have severe mental illness are often a hidden minority. A floridly psychotic man probably would not be able to keep a home or a job and would likely be living on the streets. Most people wouldn’t run into him in their daily lives. Additionally, the occult seems on the surface to grant wishes with the mere waving of a magick wand. That is magical thinking (a technical term denoting the misattribution of causality between two events). Experienced practitioners know that this is not how magick works, but this perception may just fit right into a delusional person’s view of reality. So yes, I do think that occult studies attracts a larger percentage of people with severe mental disorders than we see in the general population. However, I don’t see many people who have such severe symptoms sticking around for a significant amount of time.
What would you say to someone who is mentally ill wishing to join the occult?
Once again it would depend on the particulars of the case. For most, I would recommend seeing an open-minded therapist on an ongoing basis. A therapist could act as an anchor for the person. We commonly see issues such as ego inflation in new magicians regardless of mental status. We are taught in Liber Librae to seek balance. Ritual workings and initiation can be destabilizing, and it is important to always return to a place of balance. A good therapist can greatly help in this endeavor. Notably, I recommend this to all magicians regardless of their mental status as did Israel Regardie. If the individual takes psychotropic medication, it would be important to remain in close contact with an open-minded psychiatrist in order to ensure that the medication is managing symptoms correctly. After all, it would be important to isolate variables. Was the operation a failure, or was it an improper dosage of medication?
Learn first — Oh thou who aspirest unto our ancient Order! — that Equilibrium is the basis of the Work. If thou thyself hast not a sure foundation, whereon wilt thou stand to direct the forces of Nature?
– Liber Librae
Is doing ritual and meditation a good substitute for seeing a therapist?
Absolutely not. Ritual and meditative work are wonderful adjuncts to therapy. They are not a substitute. A good therapist will provide an outside perspective that can save tremendous time and trouble on the part of the magician. Have you ever been practicing a yoga pose for weeks and still experienced serious strain? If you go to a class, an experienced yoga instructor can adjust your pose by a few inches here and there, and you’re suddenly able to hold the pose effortlessly. That experienced external perspective can make all the difference.
When I’ve suffered from depression, there was never any amount of meditation or ritual that would pull me out. One of the symptoms of depression is loss of motivation. How would I continue with a devoted ritual or meditative practice when I can’t summon the will to get out of bed or off the couch? A therapist can help reduce the length of time of the depressive episode so that I could get back to my Work without undue delay. I do want to point out that while depressed, ritual and meditation does help keep me crawling forward, going to work, etc by focusing my in in the moment. However, it does not cure or shorten the depressive episode. I encourage all practicing magicians of whatever stripe to have a working relationship with a good therapist.
Mentally ill people are often stigmatized and treated unfairly in general. What are you doing in your community to alleviate this?
I fully agree. The stigma of mental illness is something that I go to great lengths to fight. I do this with my patients, their families, and the community at large. I give lectures in the public and private sectors in which I address the reality of mental illness and seek to educate the public. I also engage in political advocacy at the state level, and I recently testified in front of a committee of my state’s Senate about mental illness. I truly think that the best thing that can be done to combat this stigma is education. People generally have no idea how mental disorders manifest or how to be helpful or supportive when someone is wrestling with mental issues.
Much of my practice at this current moment is with veterans. I work with a lot of men and women who suffer from pretty extreme PTSD. This stigma is especially rampant in the armed forces. For these veterans, seeking treatment for their symptoms would have been a career ending move. So they sucked it up and worked day in and day out until they simply couldn’t do it anymore and had to leave the service. It is sometimes years later that they seek treatment, and often this systematic stigma ends in suicide (22 veterans die per day to suicide). The stigma is an extremely serious topic that has a very real cost in human lives. If these men and women could get help as symptoms develop, they could have a much better chance of symptom remission. I think that the military and society as a whole needs much more education in how to assist people who wrestle with serious mental conditions.