As a fellow blogger wrote, “If only it were so simple…”
Depending on the kind of mental illness and its severity, it might be like the cartoon below: feel the storm coming and hunker down. But there are other possibilities:
— Feeling the storm coming, and work frantically to batten down the hatches with the meds at hand before chaos…
— No warning, just the storm arrives, and there is nothing in the larder, no time to cancel, just SPLAT and then aftermath for a while…
— Or the storm arrives and passes…. and you wake up with your life in disarray, the house in need of Crime Scene Cleaners, your bank account empty and half your friends furious for mysterious reasons.
I know folks for whom each of those scenarios has happened. So if you have a friend with mental illness, be kind. If you are one of us, know that you aren’t alone, even if it feels like it. (And thanks, comic artist, for a great cartoon!)
What can Jewish tradition teach us about helping people who are depressed?
REACH OUT – Make contact, either by phone or in person. There is a beautiful story in tractate Berakhot 5a-b of the Talmud about three rabbis. The first rabbi, Chiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him, and asked him if he welcomed his suffering. Rabbi Chiyya said no. Then Rabbi Yochanan reached out his hand, took the sick rabbi’s hand, and raised him up.
Rabbi Yochanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina, his teacher, went to see him. He asked the same question, and got the same answer. Then he took Rabbi Yochanan’s hand and raised him up. The text itself asks then, why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself? It answers itself, saying, “The prisoner cannot free himself.”
Finally, Rabbi Eleazar fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him. He finds the rabbi lying in a dark room and crying. Rabbi Yochanan asks some questions about Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness. When Rabbi Eleazar says, “i am weeping because you are going to die someday.” Rabbi Yochanan says, “Yes, that’s very sad” and then they both cry for a while. Then Rabbi Yochanan says, “Do you welcome your suffering?” and Rabbi Eleazar says no, and Rabbi Yochanan takes his hand and helps Rabbi Eleazar up.
What can we learn from this? First of all, it is good to visit people who are sick, whether they are physically or mentally ill. We don’t know exactly what was wrong with Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, but Rabbi Yochanan visited him, expressed his care, and helped him get better.
Second, we learn that people can’t heal themselves. Never tell a person with depression to “snap out of it.” Instead, ask how they are feeling, listen, and if you can “give them a hand,” literally or metaphorically, do so. Few of us can heal miraculously like Rabbis Yochanan and Hanina, but friendly contact can help.
The case of Rabbi Eleazar is particularly interesting. In his case, it’s clear that the illness is depression. So one thing we learn is that the ancient rabbis saw overwhelming sadness and “lying in a dark room” as a genuine illness. Secondly, Rabbi Yochanan treated Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness with respect. He didn’t say, “That’s silly, everyone dies sometime!” He agreed that it was sad, empathized with his student, and then helped him up.
OFFER COMFORT – In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah hears that Queen Jezebel wants to kill him. Initially, he runs for his life, but after a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sinks down to the ground under a tree and says, “I just want to die.” Then he falls asleep. After he sleeps for a while, an angel comes to him and sets down food and water, saying only, “Get up and eat.” Elijah does so, then lies back down to sleep some more. The angel comes again, bringing more food and water, and says, “Get up and eat; the journey has been too much for you.” Elijah eats and drinks and feels stronger – he is able to travel ahead to Mt. Horeb, where he has an encounter with God.
The angel brings food and water to Elijah. He offers sympathy (“the journey has been too much for you”) but no advice or analysis. He doesn’t scold or tell Elijah to snap out of it. And he is not impatient when Elijah says nothing, just eats the food and goes back to sleep.
The angel is an example of one way to help a depressed friend. Don’t ask “what can I do?” because that requires thought and decision making. Simply bringing by a bit of comfort food, and delivering it without demanding much social interaction can be very helpful. A brief bit of human (or angel!) connection can be helpful. If you decide to bring food, bring it in a disposable dish. That isn’t very “green,” I know, but washing dishes takes energy. It also doesn’t have to be a whole meal. It can be a slice of cake or a bowl of soup to heat in the microwave.
The same is true for some small errand or chore. Don’t do housework (that may feel like criticism) but visit briefly and bring in the newspaper or the mail that has collected on the doorstep. All of these things say, “I care about you.”
The important thing is to keep it simple.
Finally, we have an example of the wrong thing to do for a depressed person:
DO NOT GIVE ADVICE - The Book of Job offers some powerful examples of “how not to help.” Job suffers one misfortune after another, and when his friends come to see him, they focus on their belief that he must have done something to bring his misfortune upon himself. He needs to repent his sins and get right with God! (Job 4-27)
When our friends are distressed, we are distressed. The desire to fix things can be almost unbearable, especially if we think we know a remedy. We want to point out the obvious and give advice. We ache to tell our friend to get some exercise, to eat right, to see a better therapist, to snap out of it!
Just as it was for Job’s “comforters,” this impulse is worse than useless. Many depressed individuals are already mired in a swamp of “shoulds” and “oughts,” and the depression has paralyzed them. Giving even the most well-meaning advice can make them feel worse. If they want help finding a therapist or getting some exercise, that’s different – but pushing unwanted “solutions” will be unproductive.
GET HELP: If someone in your community is depressed, tell your rabbi! He or she wants to know and will know how to contact the person.
Finally – this is very important! - If a person talks about suicide, take it seriously. Call a suicide hotline or their doctor. Never assume that talk about suicide is “kidding” or attention seeking. If there was anything at all to the talk, it’s important that they get help immediately. Even if later they say they didn’t mean it, you can’t take that chance. The principle of pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – demands that we take such talk at face value and react.
Being a good friend to a person with depression is a mitzvah. It is tempting to stay away from people who are in pain – pain is unpleasant, after all. But reaching out, checking in, offering food or simple help – those things can make a huge difference. Be a mensch!
I have two black dogs. One makes me laugh, and one makes me cry.
This is Jojo. Sometimes we refer to her as Jojo the Clown, because she makes my entire family laugh. She has a dance that she does when she sees new people or favorite people, aka “the Jojo dance,” which consists of her front paws doing a waltz and her back paws doing the Charleston. Someday I need to stop laughing long enough to make a video.
Jojo is a rescue dog. She languished at her foster home, waiting for new people. The old people had gotten sick and had to give her up. After months of being passed over (something that often happens to black dogs) she became depressed. For comfort, she stole food from the other dogs, and her normally 9 pound body ballooned to 15. When Linda and I met her, she was a sad little depressed dog. She lay there, looking sad until I picked her up. Then she peed all over me.
I immediately identified with Jojo; we both had “black dogs.” That was what Winston Churchill called depression: his black dog. I have that kind of black dog, too, and from time to time it sticks to my heels like glue. Lately, I have been visited by Black Dog #2. (Jojo is Black Dog #1 – of course she is #1 – she makes me laugh.)
When Jojo got a home, and the right meds, she returned to the self she was meant to be. And I find her encouraging during my spells with Black Dog #2. If Jojo could learn to dance again, so can I.
Part of recovery is following doctor’s orders and taking my meds. And part of it is immersing myself in the home of my heart: Judaism. Judaism teaches me in my morning prayers, “The soul … within me is pure.” I’m not bad, even if I feel bad. Moreover, I can do good: I can do mitzvot. I can study texts, I can pray, I can give tzedakah, I can teach my students, and I can relieve suffering (in small ways). Like Jojo, I can rejoice in having a home, even if “rejoicing” consists of eating good things and staying in touch with loved ones until I feel like more strenuous rejoicing.
Judaism teaches me that when God finished Creation, God saw that it was “tov me’od,” – it is very good. All of it. Including a certain depressed rabbi.
I am writing about this because I know that some of my readers, some whom I don’t even know, also suffer from depression. You aren’t alone, just as I am not alone. There are lots of us. And with the right help, and doing mitzvot (eating right, following doctor’s orders, getting outside ourselves to do mitzvot for others) it will be OK.
It is the tough weeks when I am most grateful for being a Jew. I have a storehouse of wisdom saved up for me by the Jews of the past: the Torah, the Tanakh (Bible), the Mishnah and the Gemara, and wise words written by centuries of wise Jews. Even when I can’t get it together to study them, I can see them there on my shelves: centuries of faith, seeking to do good.
We’re all going to be OK.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge. The important thing is not to panic.”
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.