The God problem.
What's at the root of mental illness? What causes a once stable mind to loosen its moorings and become an unreliable narrator? Current science divides the cause of mental malfunction between biology (genes, pathogens, injuries, prenatal events, substance abuse, or a maladaptive "cognitive style") and environmental elements (poor nutrition, toxin exposure, culture, abuse, the effects of war, and stress). Whether you're a victim of bad thinking or poor diet, your brain organically damaged by illness or violence, the result can be a skewed relationship with the world outside your head.
How does the Bible explain such illness? Biblical wellness is described as knowing your proper place and doing what's expected of you. Theologian Mark Smith points out in his excellent book How Human Is God? (Liturgical Press) that personal identity in antiquity was based in social roles. Today, thanks to modern psychology, we think of our selves in terms of an interior, personal reference point: I think these thoughts, experience these events, and possess these memories, therefore I'm me. Ancient personhood was much more a matter of social placement: male or female, old or young, king or carpenter, wife or widow. We see how this works in the character of Saul in 1 Samuel: A herdsman's son is yanked out of his place to become the first king of Israel. Saul endures a violent social displacement that, coupled with some poor choices, unravels him completely.
In the same narrative from Samuel, David is similarly displaced--from shepherd boy to king--with no apparent ill effects. David's easy ascendancy underscores the significance of other characteristics he enjoys--self-confidence and God's confidence--that Saul tragically lacks.
David's easy leap from his lowly station to the throne seems to affirm a principle about mental imbalance embraced by the ancients: Mental illness, like all sickness and misfortune, is intrinsically a "God problem." David, a friend of God, could endure even radical social displacement without risk--as did many a patriarch, prophet, and apostle aligned with God. Misalignment in this fundamental relationship left one vulnerable to mortal ills of every kind, as we see with Saul.
Hippocrates challenged these established notions about the cause of illness. In the 5th century B.C. he was the first to disavow any divine cause of illness, including mental trouble. This Greek doctor sought out environmental and medically responsive treatments, like changing a person's occupation and thereby altering maladaptive social placement. Yet nearly 2,000 years after Hippocrates, the society of the Middle Ages still viewed mental illness as a religious problem: the unavoidable result of demonic possession, moral depravity, or parental sin.
The story doesn't get better anytime soon for the mentally afflicted. People continued to be held responsible for their maladies, either personally or hereditarily, for several hundred more years. Therefore confinement (rather than treatment) seemed a just social response. Eighteenth-century U.S. policy was to lock up the mentally ill in asylums, where conditions were often unhygienic, degrading, and unsafe--especially for women and children. Confinement remained the norm until activist Dorothea Dix advocated for care and treatment of the mentally ill in the 1840s. State institutions resulted, but for another century these were underfunded, understaffed, and had a dubious medical success rate.
In the 1950s antipsychotic drugs became available. Deinstitutionalization followed. Today only those perceived to be of imminent danger to themselves or others are committed to a hospital environment. Yet the stigma borne by the mentally ill remains. There are still considerable personal, familial, and social problems suffered by those who live with an unreliable narrator in the driver's seat. Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has simply led to "trans-institutionalization," meaning psychiatric hospitals now share the burden of their afflicted populations with prisons.
So maybe we're in no position to judge the ancients regarding their response to mental illness. A case could be made that most ancient rulers in the books of Kings and Chronicles were unstable to some degree. Did they all have God problems?
Were told God punishes many biblical kings for their behaviors, but mostly with physical ailments. Like King Uzziah, who contracts leprosy for his pride, or Jehoram, whose bowels fall out. Unlucky kings don't appear only in the Old Testament: King Herod, who had John the Baptist killed, is eaten alive by worms. And lest we imagine this is a guy thing, at least two queens wield power in the era of kings, and one of them, Baal-devotee Jezebel, is devoured by dogs.
Maybe absolute authority can drive any mortal to be unmoored. Which brings us to the curious story of a lesser known biblical figure, King Nebuchadnezzar, a madman if ever there was one. King Nebuchadnezzar is not an Israelite king but a foreign ruler. The fourth chapter of Daniel describes how this king has a dream of a magnificent super tree at the center of the earth, representing the king's exalted sense of self. The tree is cut down, its fruitfulness lost. The dream reports that the king's mind will be "changed from a human mind" to "the mind of a beast" for seven years.
When Daniel, a Jewish slave in the Babylonian court, is called upon to decipher the dream, he doesn't want to do it. Reluctantly Daniel reveals to Nebuchadnezzar that because he forced the Judeans into exile, the king faces seven years of exile from human society. The king will live in the open field, grazing with beasts, his baths at the discretion of heaven's rains. It all comes to pass. Nebuchadnezzar becomes deranged and is banished from court. Hair covers his body like feathers on an eagle and his nails grow like the claws of a bird as he lives out his terrible sentence.
After seven years this irrational soul wakes up and his reason is restored. The king who once scorned the poor and exalted himself has learned humility and now praises God. After his bout with zoanthropy (an actual condition of believing oneself to be an animal), Nebuchadnezzar's throne is returned to him. The restored soul is the moral soul, one who appreciates his proper place before God and his fellow human beings.
This story is echoed in the demoniacs in the time of Jesus who wander among the tombs, separate from society, treated as less than human. They shriek and howl and can't ask for the help they need. Yet Jesus, his compassion limitless, sets them free. Jesus doesn't ask what sin caused their trouble or why the derangement occurred. The hope for every sinner--that is, every person--is the same: to be restored to full communion with God and others. Healing and forgiveness are the great medicines of the Christ.
Too often we dismiss the gospel stories about demoniacs because frankly, we don't know what to do with them. Should the church be casting out demons and, if so, how does one go about that exactly? Does the world need exorcisms to make it whole, or something more? Meanwhile, so many of the mentally afflicted in our society wander along the margins of life. The unreliable narrative inside them makes them fearful to us and keeps them apart from every good thing that gives us all hope, happiness, and peace.
By Alice Camille, author of This Transforming Word, and other titles available at www.alicecamille.com.