Q. Religious or unwell: A friend of mine who is now part of my family by marriage has recently decided to explore different religious traditions. I’m supportive of her finding her happiness however she chooses, but the things she talks about have me concerned. She claims to have a “spirit guide” that’s a dragon who visibly manifests to her, interacts with the world around her, and speaks to her in her mind throughout the day. She also has decided, on her own without a therapist or psychiatrist’s diagnosis, that she has “mostly integrated dissociative identity disorder” and that several of her personalities are not human—one is a harpy priestess of Zeus, for instance, and another is a cat that communes with the goddess Bastet.
Obviously, I’m not her boss, but I’m starting to get concerned. My question is, where is the line between religious experience and self-discovery, and genuine mental health issues? My first thought when she told me about the dragon was that she’s hallucinating and needs evaluation, but if I were to bring it up, I think she would feel offended because, according to her, it’s part of her spiritual and religious experience. I only brought up the personality issue because it started after this religious exploration, and has religious aspects to it as well.
Do I try to talk to her and suggest she might need help? Do I talk to the family member she’s married to and see what they think about it? Do I go straight to the intervention level? Or am I totally off the mark here and this is within the realm of normal spiritual experience for people?
A: I don’t think this is “normal.” While her belief in a dragon spirit guide is arguably not any weirder than praying to God and waiting for an answer, it’s new and weird for her and therefore something to keep an eye on. But I don’t think it demands urgent action on your part. My understanding (and I’m not an expert, so hopefully someone will correct me if I’m wrong) is that people are generally allowed to have whatever delusions they want, without receiving any treatment, right up until the point the delusions make them dangerous to themselves or others. That doesn’t mean you can’t gently encourage her to seek help on her own, after checking in with her spouse and making sure you’re sending the same message. The fact that she’s self-diagnosed could offer an opening—you could suggest that she see a professional just to make it official, or frame it as, “This is a lot to deal with all at once—maybe you should talk to someone about it.”
But the important thing is that she’s safe, and it sounds like she is. For now I’d focus on staying in touch and listening to her, paying attention to whether any of the new beliefs become disturbing or make her want to harm herself. And in the meantime, just be a friend. Whether it’s spirituality, the mental illness she believes she has, or a different mental illness, the big change to the way she’s seeing the world sounds stressful and she could likely use your support.