Can one find help specifically for mental illness in the Bible, as it was not known or understood as such when the Bible was written? As God’s Word, His inspired truth, the Bible is completely applicable to life today, when many people are suffering with mental health issues of their own or of loved ones. Great comfort can be found in concrete examples of mental health episodes that are given to us in Scripture, and when one is in a dark place emotionally, one can understand that the mentally ill are not forgotten in the Bible.
There are clear examples of suicidal ideation in the Old Testament. In the book of Tobit, there was a righteous man named Tobias who dwelled in the midst of evildoers. When the evil king Sennacherib killed Judeans and left their bodies to rot, Tobias buried them at the expense of the wrath of the king. While performing this act of mercy, sparrows’ droppings fell into his eyes and he was blinded. Tobias was doing his best to follow the law of God, and in return (in the eyes of the world), he was struck blind. In his grief, he begged the Lord to take his life. “Command my spirit to be taken up, that I may depart and become dust. For it is better to die than to live…and great is the sorrow within me” (Tobit 3:6).
Meanwhile, a young woman named Sarah, in a different land, had seven successive husbands, each husband being killed on their wedding night by a demon. Imagine her growing fear at each successive wedding, the uncertainty of it happening again, the hope that each time her husband would live, that she could bear children, and gain the honor and vocation of being a wife and mother. Instead she continued to see death, to see good men die, to lose her dreams, and then be bullied for it by the servants as if she deserved it, or was even capable of controlling the situation.
After being mocked, “she was deeply grieved, even to the thought of hanging herself.” (Tobit 3:10). She was suicidal. Because of her desire to keep her father from the shame of having a daughter commit suicide, she reconsidered, and prayed to God for a natural death instead, “Command that I be released from the earth and that I hear reproach no more…Why should I live?” (Tobit 3:13-15)
The great prophet Elijah also experienced persecution and despair. The evil queen Jezebel tried to have him killed, and he fled into the wilderness. He was utterly despondent, and prayed, “it is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1Kings 19:4).
Tobias, Sarah, and Elijah had a few things in common. They were righteous people who tried to obey the will of God despite adversity. Their response when desperately longing for death is the perfect way for anyone who is suicidal to act-they call out to God. Even though asking to die, and heartbroken, they called to their Father in heaven.
God’s response is prompt and merciful. He sent an angel to each of them. To Tobias and Sarah he sent the great Archangel Raphael, who brought Tobias’ son, Tobit, as a husband for Sarah, and drove away the demon so that they were able to marry and find the happiness that God willed for them. Raphael cleared the eyes of Tobias, and restored his sight, a prefiguring of Christ healing the blind man. Raphael said to them, “Do not be afraid; you will be safe. But praise God forever” (Tobit 12:17). An angel is also sent to Elijah in the desert, with food and water to strengthen him. That food sustained him for forty days and forty nights, when God met with him, and showed Himself to Elijah as a quiet, still, voice.
Three people were suicidal, and three people prayed and were sent Divine help. Repetition is often used in Scripture to show how important a teaching is. This theme of suicidal ideation is repeated three times, also a very significant number in the Catholic faith. This should show how much God is trying to tell humanity that He understands mental illness, and has not forgotten those suffering from it. He wants people to turn to him and cry to Him from their hearts so that He can bring healing. The repetition is no coincidence.
The New Testament shows Jesus “healing every disease and infirmity,” (Matthew 9:35) and giving the disciples the power to “heal every disease and every infirmity” (Matthew 10:1). Again there is a repetition, showing that although people living in the time of Christ may not have been able to put a name to mental illness, Christ healed every illness, which must necessarily have included mental illness. Even though people could not name it, they could recognize when it was cured, when the sadness lifted, racing thoughts calmed, delusions and hallucinations quieted.
There is a great push from the Culture of Death to legalize assisted suicide. This is a tragedy and a false compassion. When contemplating suicide, a person is suffering from a physical disease, and needs assistance from medical professionals to recover. With treatment, these thoughts diminish and a person is better equipped to understand the value of their lives. Allowing or encouraging suicide is not only usurping the power of life and death from God, to whom this power alone belongs, it is telling the suicidal person that there is no hope for their lives, no meaning in suffering, and that they have no value because of their illness. Where would Israel have been without Elijah, if God had granted His prayer to die? After Elijah’s suicidal episode, he began mentoring the prophet Elisha. How much knowledge did he gain from his own sufferings that he was able to pass on to Elisha for the good of God’s Chosen People?
It is necessary to seek help from doctors when in crisis from a physical illness which manifests itself in depression, anxiety, and desire for death. Trust that God will work through doctors, therapists, and medical staff, and pray that He will send His angels to bring strength and comfort. There is no need for fear, but rather a great need to praise God. It is stunning that God revealed Himself not as a great cataclysm of nature, but in quiet, in peace, in a still whisper. For those who live in anxiety, holding to this thought can be calming and reassuring. God will be gentle to us, and He does not want us to be afraid of Him. Praise God forever!