Judaism and Mental Illness

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. 

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

15 thoughts on “Judaism and Mental Illness”

  1. 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?

  2. 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!

  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.

  4. Hi, Rabbi Adar

    Thank you for this post.

    I’ve recently started to follow you on twitter – I see now that we have 2 interests in common. Judaism & Mental Illness.

    I write, advocate, tweet about Mental Illness because we have that in our family.

    With the support of our now emeritus Rabbi Mindy Portnoy (temple sinai, wash DC) – 5 years ago I started a support & resources-sharing group for parents at our temple (open to all in the DC Jewish community) called Parents of Young Adults who Struggle. (My special interest is in young adult mental health because, as you likely know, the young adult years are when the symptoms most often emerge.)

    Our group meets monthly – and we are also on Facebook.

    We have tried to spread the word about young adult mental health within the Jewish community here in DC – with limited success. Stigma? Shame? Lack of understanding?

    I did speak in April to a group of rabbis and other clergy at our Jewish Social Services Agency (in nearby Montgomery county, md) at a clergy training session on mental illness within the Jewish community.

    I will take any chance I get to inform & educate & encourage access/improved care.

    I also am on the board of our local NAMI chapter – and I have my own small parent advisory business to help parents of hs and college kids deal with Mental Health issues on campus. (I write on this angle for websites and magazines.)

    Name of my advisory service shares the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov quote /
    http://www.yourbridgeforward.com – please do check out my bio and help I can give to parents.

    And I tweet – would love if you would follow me back @ _nwolf

    If there’s a connection to be made, want to start a Parents of a Young Adults who Struggle group where you live, let me know!

    And keep writing about Mental Illness with a Jewish perspective.

    I am sure many members of the clergy deal with MI challenges. Rabbis are people too – I know this well.

    Thanks for listening,

    Nancy Wolf
    Chevy Chase, Md

    1. Oh, Nancy! What a pleasure to “meet” you here online! I have been quietly following the facebook group for a while now, and have found it very helpful.

      I will certainly follow you on twitter, and I look forward to making further connections. Thank you so much for writing!

  5. From what I understand Hashem is Almighty and we should be thankfull and rejoyce in His goodness and that we can ask to be healed when we think we are sick. Blessed is the Lord who heals the sick.

  6. I thought the article was good, I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety 8 years ago. When I was suffering with mental illness I tried Jewish support then sought out Christian support. I didn’t find my Jewish community reaching out and the Christian community also lacks some sensitivity in the matter. The schools should teach mental health sensitivity. I’m divorced and my ex would not let my kids know what was going on with me.

    I pray for others for help and guidance to get the support and love they need.

    Gary kleiner

    1. Oh, Gary, I am so sorry you have not received better support! Ignorance is a big problem. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to reach out to your rabbi and tell them what’s going on. If you’ve already tried that , I would be glad to help you look for a more comfortable synagogue.

  7. I’ve noticed that people with mental health challenges are not listed on the mi sheberach lists on Shabbat. I feel so much for these people as they are struggling greatly. One day I asked Rabbi if we could include those people not listed in our prayers. She understood and agreed readily.

    Good luck with your journey. Remember that some mental health problems have huge tolls on partners and family members. It is important to seek supportive care always or you can ‘go down with the ship’ too. And most people do.



    1. Jo, you are right, family and friends are also impacted by mental illness. When I was a chaplain intern at a cancer hospital, I was taught to think of cancer as something that affected both the patient and their support system as well. In this as in many other things, mental illness is not as different from physical illness as we might think.

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