Useful Covid-19 Mental Health Resources

Depression – It’s Nothing New Mental Illness in Jewish Tradition

Depression is a well known mental health disorder. Still, it is a disorder subject to some confusion, because everyone feels down or sad now and then. Clinical depression is much more than that; it is a serious illness. When someone has depression, it hinders his daily life and causes pain to the depressed individual and to those who care about him.

Most people cannot fathom the pain of depressed individuals. As the British poet Giles Andreae once said, “Here is the tragedy. When you are the victim of depression, not only do you feel utterly helpless and abandoned by the world, you also know that very few people can understand, or even begin to believe, that life can be this painful.”

Moreover, there is a stigma associated with mental health disorders. Sometimes we are tempted to view depression as a disorder that was “discovered” in recent times, and that suffering from a mental illness is not the same as suffering from a medical condition. In fact, researchers are increasingly discovering that mental health disorders are really disorders of the brain, which would mean that mental illness can be understood as a medical condition that changes a person’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior.

Furthermore, there is a notion that it is somehow un-Jewish to suffer from depression. Shouldn’t the Torah infuse our hearts with happiness – or at least provide the remedy for depression?

In order to address these misconceptions, we must realize that not only are mental health disorders as real as other medical conditions, and have been around since we left the Garden of Eden, but also that the Talmud itself discusses depression.

The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) tells us that it is permitted to extinguish a candle on Shabbos because of an “Evil Spirit,” since the Evil Spirit can possibly be fatal if the patient is exposed to the candlelight. This is perplexing. What is this Evil Spirit that the Mishnah is describing? What kind of spirit can be life threatening if the candle is not extinguished?

The Rambam (1138 – 1204), in his commentary to the Mishnah, writes, “The Evil Spirit is referring to melancholy. There is a type of melancholy that will cause the ill person to lose his mind when he sees light or when he is amongst other people. He finds peace only in darkness, in solitude, and in desolate places.”

“Melancholy” is the ancient term for depression and was until the 20th century the word of choice in the English language as well. (The word comes from the Greek for black bile, as the ancient Greeks believed that the cause of depression is an excess of black bile. In classic Rabbinic literature, the term mara shehora is used for depression, which also means black bile.) The word depression was coined by the mental health profession, causing the word melancholy to be used much less frequently in a clinical sense.

So now we recognize that (according to the Rambam) the Talmud is teaching us that a person can be in such a deep depression that he needs to be in the dark in order to retain his sanity, otherwise he might lose his mind in a way that can be life threatening. But is light sensitivity indeed one of the symptoms of depression?

Well, light sensitivity (also known as photophobia) is not one of the common symptoms of depression, but it definitely is a symptom that some people experience. Dr. Kathleen Digre, professor of ophthalmology and neurology at the University of Utah, said that some people can tell how depressed they are by how light sensitive they are. The other symptom that the Rambam mentions is the desire to be alone. Social withdrawal is a common symptom of depression. There are many symptoms of depression, and a diagnosis of depression is based on the presenting symptoms of the individual. Obviously, this diagnosis must be made by a competent mental health professional.

Incredibly enough, the Rambam also offers advice for people who suffer from depression. In Shemona Perakim (“Eight Chapters” – the Rambam’s introduction to Avos) in Chapter 5, the Rambam writes, “If a person develops melancholy, he should eliminate it by listening to music and songs, by strolling in gardens and amongst beautiful buildings, and by sitting amongst beautiful images, and other ways of broadening the mind, and then he will remove the distress of his melancholy.”

Clearly, the Rambam’s advice is based on the information available in medieval times. Today, mental health professionals have many different tools in their toolbox to treat depression, ranging from psychotherapy to psychotropic medications.

However, one lesson we can learn from the Talmud and the Rambam is that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and that people have been dealing with depression for thousands of years. There is nothing shameful about it, and nothing un-Jewish about seeking treatment for depression and other mental health disorders. Additionally, just as the Rambam enlightens the Torah for us in so many ways, he also shines a bright light into the mental health field, advising us to use whatever means are available to us to treat mental health conditions.