Some of the most widely relatable experiences are those least talked about. Near the top of that list: mental health issues. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S.”1 Although there are many disorders and illnesses that plague the human mind, there are a few that are wildly rampant today. Depression alone affects more than 264 million people worldwide2—even 1.9 million children, ages 3-17, have been diagnosed. In the United States, anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million adults annually (roughly 18% of the population).3 What’s more, such issues can affect the Jewish community at disproportionate rates; a 1997 study reported that Jewish males experienced a higher rate of major depression than all non-Jews combined.4
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues have only intensified. “Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States,” the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports, recommending that “the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions.” In other words, we can no longer afford to be bad at discussing mental health.5
In reality, mental health issues aren’t a strange new phenomenon, a sign of weakness, or a sin.
In recent years, the stigma surrounding mental health has been shifting as discussion on the topic has become increasingly normalized. Yet conversations about mental health issues are still not nearly as prevalent as the experience of these issues themselves. Serious disorders and illnesses have been downplayed, mislabeled, and mistreated, both by those suffering from them and those who are not. In some religious or traditional communities, such issues are disregarded or even shamed when they are conflated with spiritual or moral struggles. In reality, mental health issues aren’t a strange new phenomenon, a sign of weakness, or a sin; they’ve been plaguing humanity throughout our existence, and the Tanakh is filled with examples.
Mental Health Issues in the Hebrew Scriptures
Many major players in the Hebrew Scriptures likely struggled with common mental health issues. Though we can’t definitively diagnose our ancestors, we can identify some key symptoms recognized by many modern psychologists as being consistent with depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and expression of suicidal thoughts. Here are just a few examples from Scripture:
Elijah: The prophet called down fire from heaven, performed amazing works of God, and defeated the prophets of Baal. Immediately after this miraculous victory, “he sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died’” (1 Kings 19:4). Outwardly, this may seem like an illogical order of events, but the disconnect between the actual events and Elijah’s reaction indicate an internal struggle. Though God worked through the prophet to do wondrous things, Elijah still clearly wrestled with feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, even to the point of idealizing death.
Job: After losing his children, his livestock, and being struck with painful sores, Job is thrown into grief and possibly also depression. But there may have been additional symptoms indicative of other issues: “When I think my bed will comfort me and my couch will ease my complaint, even then you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions, so that I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine. I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning” (Job 7:13-16). After the sudden trauma of loss, Job says he is tormented by visions and dreams. These could easily have been symptomatic of PTSD, something that is common in individuals who have had experiences like Job.
Hannah: The mother of Samuel struggled with infertility for years prior to his birth. She undoubtedly felt isolation and shame, surrounded by social pressures, thriving families, and a well-meaning husband who didn’t understand her pain. 1 Samuel tells us, “Hannah would be reduced to tears and would not even eat . . . [she] was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:7, 10). This cyclical pain persisted for years, affecting her mood, feelings of self-worth, and possibly even causing an eating disorder.
David: He was a highly favored king, “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet he, too, likely suffered from depression, feeling anxious and fearful, betrayed, and hopeless. In his fortieth Psalm, he lamented, “My heart fails within me,” and again in the forty-third Psalm, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” Throughout the Psalms, David expresses a lot of ongoing internal turmoil and anger—and he wasn’t afraid to be honest with God or with himself about it.
These were all people of God. Why then were they struggling with depression, anxiety, and even idealizing death? Were these feelings wrong?
Are mental health issues a sin?
By its very nature, depression can make us feel isolated, distant from God and from the people around us. (David clearly felt this way, too: “Why do you hide your face from me?” [Psalm 88:14].) The ideas that we are worthless, isolated, or abandoned by God are blatant lies. Falsehoods like these form the illusory foundation on which many mental health issues are built. The truth is that we have inherent and unique value as God’s creation, with every hair on our head and every day of our lives known and accounted for. We know for a fact that God has never and will never abandon us (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Though the ideas planted in our minds by these disorders are lies, the felt experiences caused by them are a true reality.
Though the ideas planted in our minds by conditions like depression, anxiety, or PTSD are lies, the felt experiences caused by these disorders are a true reality. Emotions themselves aren’t good or bad—they’re simply facts, intrinsic to our identity as humans. What we choose to do as a result of our emotions can cause us to thrive or wither, be helpful or harmful. Anger isn’t a sin; choosing to hate someone as a result of that anger, however, is.
Mental illnesses aren’t sins; they’re disorders. They are caused by any number or combination of factors, ranging everywhere from trauma and physical illnesses to genetics and hormonal imbalances. Almost all contributing causes are outside of one’s control and don’t indicate weakness, lack of faith, or grave misstep. God doesn’t judge us for our serotonin levels any more than He judges us for our blood type, and neither should we. Not only did some of the greatest biblical figures struggle through periods of intense mental anguish—but Yeshua (Jesus) himself did, too.
Did Jesus experience depression?
Yeshua, the Son of God, lived a perfect, devout, Torah-following life and had an intimate connection with God. But he wasn’t popular—he was betrayed (by a close friend, no less), falsely accused, and publicly disowned (another close friend). When he willingly sacrificed himself, dying like a criminal in order to become our atonement, he took on all of the sins of humanity. He became the very embodiment of the sin of man, and God couldn’t even look at him. It was then that Yeshua was utterly separated from God. He cried out in Aramaic, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Matthew 27:46).
He was quoting these words from David himself. Yeshua lived the lies often told to us by depression—that we are alone, abandoned by God. Except for him, this wasn’t a lie; God had actually left him. It was the worst death ever suffered, because Yeshua is the only person who has experienced a true and complete abandonment from God.
Because of this atonement, our sins don’t separate us from God, and neither do mental health disorders. In short: “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in [Messiah Yeshua] our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
Strengthening Our Emotional Intelligence
Though rampant in both historical and modern society, we’re still woefully ill-equipped to discuss and manage mental health issues. One in four people in the world are affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, but nearly two-thirds never seek help from a health professional.6 How can we change the culture of silence and stigma?
Moving towards holistic health takes practical action, both by those suffering and those seeking to support them.
Moving towards holistic health takes practical action, both by those suffering and those seeking to support them. Jesus’ brother, James, clearly understood that practical problems need to be met with practical solutions, saying, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15-16). So what are some tangible ways we can move towards mental wellness, both in ourselves and as we support those around us?
- Begin to verbalize. First, we have to start the conversation. Those suffering shouldn’t do so in silence but feel empowered to be honest. At first, it can be awkward and understandably difficult to find the words to express such feelings. Like learning a new language, verbalizing emotions, internal processes, and physical responses takes practice. But it’s better to stumble over the words than to never speak them; silence only amplifies the voices of the lies that depression and anxiety tell us. By bringing the pain into the light, we expose the lies that thrive in darkness.
- Destigmatize mental health issues in our communities. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) says, “Many Holocaust survivors experience mental health disorders, including PTSD and survivor guilt. Even second and third generation descendants of Holocaust survivors also show a higher prevalence of PTSD and other psychiatric symptoms.”7 Those who experience anti-Semitism have reported short- and long-term mental health consequences similar to those experienced from other traumatic experiences.8 Simultaneously, the APA reports: “Mental illness carries considerable stigma in some Jewish communities, especially Hasidim.”9 This example of a double bind isn’t limited to the Jewish community, or even to religious communities. Many people perpetuate stigmas around mental illness that stifle dialogue.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. In order for healthy conversation to begin, there must be a safe space in which individuals can become vulnerable without the illogical perception that these disorders are somehow signs of weakness, dramatizing, or wrongdoing. We must learn to listen and help well, even if it means sitting with some discomfort.
- Realize our instincts aren’t always helpful. A tendency many have is to combat perceived negativity with positivity. Many have a valid and understandable fear that we’ll lean too heavily into one reality, become blind to the other, and veer down a biased and unbalanced path. Well-intentioned “on the bright side” statements, however, rarely achieve this “balance.” In fact, they often bring about the opposite outcome we were going for. Likewise, fixating on the logical order of events from our own perspectives and advising accordingly not only means we’re acting without the full breadth of necessary information, but it causes us to lose sight of the point altogether. These are understandable tactics, meant to fix or undo the problem by introducing something that could negate it. However, if our goal is to help those in need, we don’t achieve it by denying or negating the undesirable parts of reality. Health isn’t seeing, feeling, and vocalizing only positive things. Health is being able to balance and hold the full truth. This means realizing that positive and negative realities co-exist. They don’t have to be at war just because they are in tension.
- Hold the full truth. It’s often only after we acknowledge the difficult parts of our realities that we can make room to see the rest of the picture. In the Psalms, David brought all his depressed, anxious, and angry thoughts and urges to God. Afterward, he often ended the chapters in an abrupt and surprisingly positive note. Once he expressed the turmoil he felt, he was able to remind himself of the truth (whether or not he felt it) and go through the (sometimes painful) exercise of praising God, anyway. Though in tension, both his pain and his praise were true realities.
By acknowledging the pain of another, we can help make room for the rest of the truth.
This balancing act takes true strength, and we can’t always do it on our own. By acknowledging the pain of another, we can help make room for the rest of the truth. Conversations about mental health don’t bring about instantaneous resolutions. But by taking these steps to become more emotionally intelligent and expansive individuals, we can equip ourselves with the tools needed to move towards health.
Starting the Conversation
Mental health issues aren’t a burden meant to be carried alone. After Elijah collapsed under a tree in despair, God sent an angel to take care of him and equip him for the next steps he had to take. Hannah went straight to God for help, and He used Eli the priest to give her the divine assurance she needed to bring her relief. Whether you begin by talking to God, a friend, your rabbi/pastor/spiritual leader, a therapist, or even just to yourself for now, we must begin.
When people came to Yeshua to be healed, he often asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” He didn’t assume what the problem was, even though it may have seemed obvious to outsiders (e.g., “Um, Jesus, he’s blind. Obviously, heal his blindness!”). Instead, Yeshua asked where they were at, involving those in need in the process of their own healing. Likewise, God invites us into a dialogue about our pain, fears, and needs—because He can handle it. When we acknowledge the fullness of our reality, we position ourselves to see the fullness of God’s power.
1. World Health Organization, “U.S. Leading Categories of Diseases/Disorders,”d., National Institute of Mental Health, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/disability/us-leading-categories-of-diseases-disorders.shtml.
2. “Depression,” World Health Organization, 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression.
3.“Facts & Statistics,” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d., accessed September 3, 2020, https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.
5. “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, June 24-30, 2020,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm.
6. “Mental disorders affect one in four people,” World Health Report, n.d., World Health Organization, accessed September 8, 2020, https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/.
7. Sharon Packer, et al., “Stress & Trauma Toolkit for Treating Jewish Americans in a Changing Political and Social Environment,” d., American Psychiatric Association, accessed September 10, 2020, https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/cultural-competency/education/stress-and-trauma/jewish-americans.
8. Kate M. Loewenthal, “Anti-Semitism and its mental health effects,” Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2017, https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/members/sigs/spirituality-spsig/kateloewenthallantisemitismanditsmentalhealtheffects.pdf?sfvrsn=79c90f3a_2.
9. Packer, “Stress & Trauma Toolkit,” n.d.