Mental Health Awareness Shabbat
By Masorti Judaism
What does our tradition say about mental illness? The short answer is ‘not much’. And what it does say is often unhelpful, sometimes cruel. Take suicide, for example. Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 50. Yet in all of Tanakh, we have only one suicide – that of King Saul.
Saul is not treated kindly by our tradition. His suicide is preceded by a descent into madness, murderous rages, arrogance, and envy. When told that he has been ‘rejected’ by God, Saul is possessed by a ruach elohim raah – an evil spirit of the Lord. Shortly afterwards, defeated by his enemies the Philistines, and aware that his sons have fallen in battle, Saul takes his own life. In a final humiliation, his corpse is hung on the walls of Beth Shean as a marker of the ultimate defeat.
In my youth, prior to the emergence of my mental illness, I identified with Saul’s successor, David, ‘beloved of God’. Since I became ill, it is Saul with whom I feel most close.
Like Saul, I was helpless when taken over by my illness – by my ruach raah. Like Saul, this ruach/spirit overwhelmed me, leaving me feeling rejected by God, by society, by community, friends and family. Like Saul, I sensed people instinctively turn towards a David, a beautiful, successful David, and turn away from me, in my distress. Like Saul, I felt there was no alternative to suicide.
The temptation to take my own life was overwhelming. Following a combination of family trauma and redundancy, I found my mind filled with unwelcome images of suicide. Every minute of every day, before I woke, whilst I was sleeping, suicidal thoughts presented themselves to me, crowding out reality. Every moment was painful. There was no respite. I entirely lost my sense of self. I became my illness.
At the time, I thought I was the only person to experience such horrific thoughts, but recent studies suggest that at any one time 3% of the population experience ‘suicidal ideation’ like mine. There is probably at least one person in the synagogue you are in now who is haunted by the idea of suicide.
I mention synagogue because community is one of the greatest tools in recovery from mental illness. Community which, at its best, provides acceptance, love and belonging, is one of the few antidotes confirmed by science for the spiritual isolation experienced by Saul, by me, by that person in the room with you right now.
Perhaps that is why Jews pray with a minyan of ten other adults. In a minyan, no one is alone, no one is insufficient, no one is ‘abandoned by God’. In fact, in a minyan, each individual has purpose; without him/her, the rest of the community would be unable to connect with God. Should one person be at risk of conquest from the Philistines of the mind, the other nine, the rest of the community, would be able to ride to the rescue.
The model of a ‘mental health minyan’ is one I’d like us to apply in our communities, both in prayer and outside shul buildings. We are all at risk of finding our kingdom torn from us, leaving us bereft of an urge to live. On this Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, I ask us all to build ‘minyanim of the mind’, to aid those currently suffering, and to support those who will suffer, like Saul, in the future.
The author is a member of New North London Synagogue, and has requested that this piece is published anonymously.