In 2020 alone, approximately 21 million adults in the United States suffered from at least one major depressive episode (that’s 8.4% of all American adults). If anything, that number is an underestimate. To make matters worse, treatment options aren’t great. While traditional allopathic relief is available, people regularly turn toward alternative options in treating mental illness, at times gravitating toward supernatural solutions. While psychotherapy and medication are considered the first-line treatments for depression, the efficacy of these options has generally been overestimated (Leichsenring, et al). Considering that only half of those who take antidepressants notice a positive effect within six to eight weeks (National Institute of Mental Health), it’s understandable that individuals suffering from treatment-resistant depression may search for relief in alternative options. In a world where we don’t fully understand the causes of the disease we’re trying to treat, people are inclined to search for answers outside of traditional medicine.
Due to the generally limited understanding of mental illness today and the lack of effective treatment options, people may search for supernatural solutions. Pentecostal Christians, for example, tend to regard faith as the most effective treatment option for the mentally ill (Trice and Bjorck). This attitude is reflective of historic approaches to mental illness, which sustained the demand for religious remedies for mental disorders. Historian Michael MacDonald maintains that this tradition increased in popularity during sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England by Protestant controversialists, with clergymen contending that evil spirits and witches could not harm anyone if divine will had not already established its necessity (174). While they often administered traditional medical treatment for their patients, physicians at the time tended to agree that the supernatural could be both a cause and cure for the mentally distressed. MacDonald attributes the sustained popularity of religious treatments at the time to the “glaring inadequacies of medical science” (226).
Such inadequacies still exist today, which may explain why some groups are more likely to accept supernatural understandings of mental illness. The biblical tradition, for example, reinforces the idea that mental illness is related to the spiritual, suggesting that “sinful” choices may result in mental distress as a form of punishment. The story of biblical figure King Nebuchnezzar supports the idea that mental illness is a symptom of wickedness. Nebuchnezzar is advised to “renounce his sins” in order to avoid the divine punishment he’s warned of in a dream (New International Version, Daniel 4). When he doesn’t, the king is stripped of his sanity and for seven years appears to believe he is an ox. Some interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s story as a cautionary tale, implying that the king is an example of what happens to individuals when they “turn away from God” (Woods). This suggests that unrighteousness begets mental illness, continuing a long trend that conflates health and morality. As for treatment, Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity was restored when he renounced his sins and praised God.
Treatment options for mental illness have long been contested. So, too, have the causes, which may ultimately lead people to attribute mental illness to supernatural forces. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a medical textbook written in the seventeenth-century, attributes some mental distress to divine purposes, claiming that these “supernatural [causes] are from God and his angels, or by God’s permission from the devil and his ministers” (MacDonald). Some medical figures of the time disagreed, though. In a famous pamphlet about the “natural” causes of mental illness, seventeenth-century physician Edmund Jorden writes that people are “apt to make everything a supernatural work which they do not understand” (MacDonald 198).
It’s unsurprising that people would look to alternative methods to treat mental illness, as today’s traditional treatment options are generally lacking. The most commonly prescribed antidepressants, for example, often fail to adequately meet the needs of those who suffer from depression. While there are a myriad of reasons why individuals may seek alternative treatment options for mental illness, when faced with the “glaring inadequacies” of traditional treatments, individuals may turn to the supernatural for explanations relating to both cause and cure.
Leichsenring, Falk et al. “The efficacy of psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies for mental disorders in adults: an umbrella review and meta-analytic evaluation of recent meta-analyses.” World Psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 21,1 (2022): 133-145. doi:10.1002/wps.20941
MacDonald, Michael. Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Major Depression.” NIH: National Institute of Mental Health, January 2022, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression. Accessed 23 October 2022.
New International Version. BibleGateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel%204&version=NIV. Accessed 23 October 2022.
Trice, Pamela D., and Jeffrey P. Bjorck. “Pentecostal Perspectives on Causes and Cures of Depression.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 37, no. 3, June 2006, pp. 283-294.
Woods, Mark. “Nebuchadnezzar: What his mental illness tells us about human nature.” Christian Today, 26 February 2016, www.christiantoday.com/article/nebuchadnezzar-what-his-mental-illness-tells-us-about-human-nature/80879.htm. Accessed 23 October 2022.