Judaism and Mental Illness

bridge

(Photo credit: uberculture)

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge. The important thing is not to be afraid.”

One in four adults in the US experience a diagnosable mental illness.

One in four families in the US has at least one member with mental illness.

For these and more facts about the prevalence of mental illness in the US, the Centers for Disease Control published a report on mental illness back in 2011. A “one-foot” summary: Mental illness is more common than we’d like to admit, and it affects all of our lives directly or indirectly.

What does Judaism teach about mental illness?

Mental illness has always been with us. King Saul suffered from it, back in the 10th century BCE (1 Samuel 16).  David faked madness to make an escape (1 Samuel 21), which suggests that his enemies were so familiar with it that his behavior was easy for them to (mis)interpret.

Mental illness is a serious matter. It can interfere with one’s ability to function in life. It can affect one’s ability to be a witness. It severely disrupts relationships. Jewish law has things to say about how mental illness affects marriage and divorce. (For details, contact your rabbi.)

Mental illness is an illness like any other. In the traditional prayer for healing, we pray for refuat hanefesh, v’refuat haguf, healing of spirit and healing of body. This also points to the many connections between the mind and body both in health and in illness. Therefore the sick person should seek medical care, and those close to her should help her do so. Like any other illness, it is not a punishment from God, a sign that the person did anything to “deserve it” or a sign of degeneracy.

All human beings, sick or well, deserve to be treated with respect. Judaism teaches that human beings were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It is the common element in all humanity, and it points to a higher element in us all, as well. Therefore we should treat every human being with consideration and respect, for every human being, sick or well, is of infinite worth.

Jewish Family & Childrens Agencies in many cities serve individuals and families facing mental illness and other challenges. To locate the JFCS near you, check out their Find a Service page.

I was about to post this, and then realized I’d left off the most important part: this is personal. This is about real people, namely, about me and people I love. If you think you don’t know anyone with mental illness, Surprise!  This is no longer academic. My label is “depression” although in the past I’ve also had the label “PTSD.” Someone I love dearly carries the label “bipolar disorder.” So far, we’re fighting the good fight. So you see? You know at least one person, a rabbi, with mental illness. You probably know more. 

5 Responses to Judaism and Mental Illness

  1. cardinalrobbins says:

    Thank you for this post, Rabbi. I was diagnosed with PTSD, Bipolar I, OCD and generalized anxiety disorder. Most people don’t realize their friend, spouse, co-worker, letter carrier, neighbor, etc, is struggling with mental illness. Although my psychiatrist prefers the term, “chemical imbalance of the brain,” it does constitute a mental illness and needs to be treated accordingly.

    I’m a Conservative Jew and have a question for you, related to this: Aren’t those of us who are ill basically required to take our medication by Jewish law?

    I take mine daily, because I want to be well and “high functioning” as my doctor says, but I know others who refuse to take their meds because they *enjoy* being mentally ill. They say it gives them more creativity, as well as using a plethora of other excuses not to help themselves be as healthy as possible.

    How can you continue to do mitzvot for others when you refuse to take care of yourself?

    Like this

  2. rabbiadar says:

    Shmirat Haguf, caring for the body, is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, for every Jew. Medication can be an important part of caring for ourselves.

    However, if the person feels that the medications are not working properly, or that the side-effects are interfering with a full life, then he or she has an obligation to talk with the doctor about adjustments or perhaps even to seek out a second opinion.Mental health is much more complex than a dot on a target.

    Also, I should have said in the main post that Judaism does not separate the body and spirit as sharply as does the Greek tradition: we see the human being as a whole. Medical science has borne out the truth of this approach. Caring for the body and caring for the soul are not separate and they are equally important.

    Thank you so much for writing, and for asking a GREAT question!

    Like this

  3. Thank you for this post and for your candidness rabbi. I’ve been trying to convince my mother for eleven years now that depression is at work (since my father’s death, and he left a note, so you can “do the math”) but she is from the school that doesn’t admit such a thing much less actually deal with it. It eventually landed her in the hospital over Labor Day weekend, thank God I followed my inclination and went to check on her, where I found her on the edge of a diabetic coma. Long story, but she is beginning to show signs of taking her health more seriously and my next step is to finally, hopefully , get her to go see someone to help her through the depression. It’s strange because she’s lived with it so long yet the vocabulary of it is very foreign to her.

    Sorry for rambling!

    Thanks again rabbi.

    Like this

  4. Lurkertype says:

    Rabbi, as always, you’ve said it so well. Having this blog up is your mitzvah.

    Like this

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