Biblical figures struggled with mental health, too

mental health

I have a friend in Europe who can barely keep a job.

She’s brilliant, well-educated, charming, and loaded with experience in all aspects of her profession.

The problem is her emotional state, which, even with therapy and medication, is always one meltdown away from another pink slip.

Another friend who went to school with me passed all the same exams I did. Yet she hasn’t worked in 20 years.

Depression keeps her at home, struggling to get out of bed each morning and to fill the days with meaning. Shame at her apparent failure paralyses her efforts.

A third friend has worked at the same job for decades but finds no joy in it — or in anything, to be honest.

He’d like to retire and is eligible to do so. Yet a dark cloud sits over his ability to make decisions.

He keeps hoping the choice to leave his job will be taken out of his hands by forces outside of his control.

Chances are we all know people who suffer from poor mental health of one kind or another.

Mental health and resilience

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as more than the absence of mental disorders.

Mental wellness is the state of being able to cope with life stressors, to learn and to work well, and to contribute to family and community in a way that provides a certain amount of fulfillment.

To be sure, not all of us tap dance to work on Monday morning. And in some seasons of life, our circumstances may be far from carefree.

I’ve had jobs I heartily disliked, bosses I couldn’t please, relationships fraught with conflict, financial precarity that filled the nights with anxiety.

I’ve endured low periods that kept me in emotional or career stasis for longer than was good for anyone concerned.

But given enough time and support, I managed to squirm out of difficulty and back into the sunshine. Being able to find safe passage through dark times is a feature of mental well-being and resilience.

For a variety of reasons, that resilience doesn’t function adequately for everyone — or perhaps for anyone under the wrong circumstances.

Genetics, grief, displacement from home, disability, substance abuse, and trauma are just a few of the factors that can make mental resilience nearly impossible.

There’s little encouragement in being browbeaten by religious messages that tell us our job is to share good news with confidence, to exhibit joy without a hint of fear.

 Biblical examples

Does the Bible have any examples of people who struggle with mental darkness?

Job instantly springs to mind, crying out on his dung heap in losses without consolation.

The priest Ezekiel, in exile in Babylon, demonstrates symptoms of a troubled mental state, including catatonia, paralysis, and what might be described as hallucinations — unless you prefer to call them visions.

Jeremiah suffers profound melancholy at the needless destruction of his community and rejection by his allies. We might call Jeremiah paranoid too, if his enemies weren’t really out to get him.

Many psalm writers compose lamentations that give poignant voice to a community-wide sense of desolation and loss of hope.

Mary Magdalene, we’re told, was possessed of seven demons before she met Jesus.

And plenty of other folks in her generation suffered similar excruciating afflictions, bound up in disordered mental states that tormented them and likewise robbed them of communal support.

Doubtless there were others, though scripture doesn’t linger on their stories. Jacob’s lone daughter, Dinah, for example.

After being sexually assaulted by the prince of Shechem and becoming her brothers’ excuse to wreak vengeance on the entire community, Dinah never marries or bears children, as we learn later in the catalogue of descendants.

We can imagine her young trauma, followed by years of scandal, shame, and isolation, made trust and recovery difficult. It’s likely the rest of Dinah’s story was as unhappy as the part we know.

Or consider Hagar, Sarah’s maid.

Hagar was a foreign woman enslaved in a wandering Aramean tent community. She was presented to Abraham, the head of his tribe, as a sort of parting gift by her people.

Handed once more to Abraham by Sarah as a means to an end—bearing an heir in Sarah’s stead — this young woman is obliged to have relations with a very old man who hopes for a son.

After Hagar bears one, she’s subsequently beaten and abused by a jealous Sarah.

Later, when Sarah finally bears her own child, Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are both driven from the community into the wilderness.

Isn’t it likely that Hagar wrestled through some darkness? Wouldn’t her son, rejected by his father, impoverished, and raised in the wild, carry his own mental scarring?

It’s Job, of course, whose depression is most celebrated — if you can use the word celebrate in the same sentence as depression.

Job endures sleepless nights, during which all the monsters of his tragedy come out to haunt him. Read more

  • Alice Camille is the author of Working Toward Sainthood (Twenty-Third Publications) and other titles available at
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