Image: David Plays for King Saul (Ernst Josephson, 1878), public domain
What does Judaism have to offer on the subject of bipolar disorder?
I’ve already written about the general topic of Judaism and Mental Illness, as well as Judaism and Depression. Today I’m going to look at Judaism’s take on bipolar disorder, also sometimes known as manic-depressive disorder.
Just as there are examples in Jewish scripture of depression (e.g. Psalm 38), there is also an example of bipolar disorder. No less an authority than the British Journal of Psychiatry has suggested that perhaps that was what was troubling King Saul in the Book of Samuel. King Saul was sometimes terribly sad and withdrawn, and his servants regarded it as an “evil spirit” come upon him. (1 Samuel 16) Saul’s illness increased, so that he was plagued with both depression and with bursts of energy (1 Samuel 18).
Verses in 1 Samuel 10 describe something that sounds like a manic episode. King Saul comes upon some prophets, and is himself caught up in a prophetic frenzy. People who witnessed this episode commented that it was not typical of King Saul. Over time, Saul became paranoid, sure that David was going to seize his kingdom by treachery. King Saul was a man of great charisma and promise who ultimately committed suicide on Mount Gilboa. (1 Samuel 31)
The Book of Samuel accounts for Saul’s behavior by talking about the “spirit of God” descending upon or removing itself from Saul as punishment for his disobedience to God’s orders. Characters in the book wonder if he is possessed by an evil spirit at times. Modern day Jews do not believe in “evil spirits” and instead see behaviors like Saul’s to be manifestations of mental illness. We don’t believe that mental or physical illness is a “punishment from God” – rather, both are medical conditions with natural causes.
It is a sacred duty, a mitzvah, to treat any person with mental illness with compassion. That duty extends not only to others but to ourselves.
Also, because it is a mitzvah to care for the body, if one suspects they have bipolar disorder, it is a mitzvah to seek medical care and to take the advice of one’s doctors seriously. This can be very challenging, since mental health care is by no means as easily available as it should be, and there is much room for improvement in treatment protocols.
Treatment for bipolar disorder can be a challenge. Therefore it is up to the rest of us, to friends and family and community, to support anyone who suffers with the illness to whatever extent we can.