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Barack Mandela
Human Rights Attorney

Don’t Say Crazy: Religion, Faith, & Mental Illness

Barack Mandela, a religious scholar, at the grave site of Rabbi Elazar Shach in B’nai Brak, Israel. (Photo from Mr. Mandela’s personal collection)

The Prophet Moses claimed to see the presence of God in the Burning Bush. Moses also claimed to hear the voice of God. He also received commands from an invisible force.

According to modern psychiatry and psychology, was the Prophet Moses suffering from Schizophrenia? Were Moses’ prophetic experiences a sign of psychosis?

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder partially characterized by episodes of psychosis; with symptoms including hearing voices (auditory hallucinations), paranoia, delusions, and disorganized thinking.

In today’s secular society, if a person claims to hear the voice of God, psychiatrists will prescribe anti-psychotic medications, psychotherapy, and possibly mental hospitalization.

Many mental patients have religious or faith-based delusions and hallucinations. In Israel, there exists a disorder known as Jerusalem syndrome which is “a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions, or other psychosis-like experiences”.

The Jerusalem syndrome disorder calls into question the divine experiences of all Biblical prophets. Were the religious experiences of prophets such as Ezekiel the result of undiagnosed mental illnesses?

Many mentally ill patients may think that he is a God or influenced by divine beings. Some psychotic patients claim to have prophetic powers, messianic missions, or divine revelations.

There are similarities between prophets and psychotic patients.

In many religious and spiritual communities, there is a strong anti-psychiatry attitude, with members avoiding psychiatric treatment altogether. Instead, many of these faith communities believe in ‘casting out demons’ and ‘casting out unclean spirits.’ Sometimes, religious leaders lay their hands on so-called ‘demon possessed’ congregants to cast out the demons.

Rather than psychotherapy, medications, and mental hospitals, some religious communities recommend prayer, Bible study, meditation, and religious sanctification to heal psychotic symptoms.

It’s as though some religious communities exist in a different reality than modern psychiatry. In those religious communities, people sincerely believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing God who is capable of miraculous healing. This unbreakable faith in God’s power goes beyond mere psychiatric diagnosis. For some people, God is literally ‘everything’.

This raises powerful questions: How can modern psychiatrists diagnose God? Is it possible to diagnose an all-powerful divine being? In the Book of Genesis, for example, it states God caused a great flood and killed almost all living things on Earth. How can such destructive behavior be diagnosed by psychotherapists, mental health workers, and clinical social workers? Is God beyond all diagnosis?

During my personal religious life, I have witnessed hundreds of faith-based experiences that could be considered mental illness. While I was at the grave site of Rabbi Elazar Shach in Israel, for example, I viewed a religious Jewish woman wearing a wig and hat who was praying and gyrating and shaking while reading the Book of Psalms (Tehillim).  Was this praying a legitimate expression of devotion to God? Was it a symptom or sign of psychosis?

I recommend the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Psychiatric Association (APA) launch a new international, long-term study titled “Global Study on Religion, Faith, and Spirituality as it relates to Mental Health”. I also recommend the United Nations convene a special group called “United Nations Religion and Mental Wellness Committee”.

In conclusion, I recommend the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) add a specific category called ‘Religious Delusional Disorder’ (RDD).

Currently, there is a divide between the world of religious leaders and the world of psychiatry and psychology. By working together with mental health professionals and people of faith, we can heal mental illness and remove the stigma of mental diagnosis and treatment.

We need both intellect and compassion to heal mental suffering, because a head without a heart is not humanity.

About the Author
Licensed Attorney. I earned a Doctor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law (1997). I earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Riverside (1994). I was an international student at the University of Costa Rica Faculty of Law (1991-1992) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law (Summer 1996). I am a military veteran of the United States Air Force, United States Army, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I am a laureate of the National Defense Service Medal from the Pentagon (2006). I am a financial donor to following: Harvard Law, Yale Law, Stanford Law, Berkeley Law, UC Hastings College of the Law, UC Davis Law, Columbine High School, Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Exeter Academy, Sidwell Friends School, Viewpoint School, Beverly Hills High School, Eton College in the United Kingdom, Special Olympics, Children's Defense Fund, Obama Foundation, Clinton Foundation, Barbra Streisand Foundation, Princeton University, Florida A&M, Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and the British Red Cross. I am former special assistant and staff attorney to Governor Pete Wilson of California. I was public affairs assistant to US Senator Barbara Boxer and Mayor Ehud Olmert of Jerusalem and Jerusalem spokesperson Haggai Elias.
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