In the bible, Mental illness is seen as a punishment by God for sinning. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses warns that if the people do not follow the commandments from god then ‘the Lord will smite you with madness’ (Deuteronomy 28:28).
One instance of this being carried out was with King Saul. King Saul ruled Israel 3000 years ago and was punished with madness after disobeying the orders of prophet Samuel. Another notable occurrence was with king Nebuchadnezzar. King Nebuchadnezzar II ruled ancient Babylon in 600 BC. He had displeased God by becoming too prideful in this rule. The book of Daniel predicted that he would be driven away from his kingdom and will suffer a humiliating period of madness where he would live with wild animals. This punishment could be referring to a psychological condition where the king believes he is an animal. The name for this is lycanthropy. There is an association between lycanthropy and other mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, affective disorders and substance abuse – suggesting the punishment for displeasing god is mental illness.
There are also instances where modern interpretations would have us believe that biblical figures were mentally ill. However, in the past prophesying was considered appropriate behaviour for those who said they were in connection with God. For example, Prophet Ezekiel was said to have heard voices where god was speaking to him. This is a common symptom of schizophrenia. If this occurred in modern times, the person would be considered mentally unwell. However, it is difficult to make these comparisons as we cannot fully understand the cultural contexts in which these behaviours occurred.
Another instance where the mentally ill were persecuted by religious institutions was with the medieval witch hunts. During the middle ages, anyone that was different in any way was accused of willingly aiding the devil and was accused of witchcraft. However, these ‘absurd’ behaviours were probably just symptoms of mental illness.
There are multiple issues with associating mental illness with sin or demonic possession. This approach puts blame on the mentally ill for their suffering. The truth is that the holiest person can still have a mental illness and others that live more sinfully may not have a mental illness. Even if one became very devout their mental illness would not disappear without treatment. It is harmful to suggest that mental illness would disappear if only a person prayed a little more. This approach leads people to avoid seeking this treatment in case their communities think of them as a sinful, evil person.
The best approach would combine spritual and medical treatment. Mental illness is a real thing that can be treated with therapy and medication. If it were merely the devil causing mental illness, medication and therapy would surely not help. Medical treatment can also be seen as a gift from God and should be utilised.