Emunah and Mental Health

FreePsychArticles #8   Emunah and Mental Health

What is emunah?   It comes from the Hebrew word:  “Emunot” defined generally as:          1. A belief; a basic assumption that lies at the root of a religious doctrine, as in “Emunot V’Deot,” “Beliefs and Ideas,” by Rav Saadiah Gaon;                                                                   2. Faith; obedience; the active support of something (action in the direction of).

Per Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, a great Chassidic rabbi and spiritual leader of the early 19th century and to this day,  “All the noble qualities of the soul depend upon faith. Faith is the foundation and source of all holiness…”

“…Faith contains the power of growth. A person with perfect faith will grow and develop in his devotion to God no matter what he may have to go through. Regardless of the obstacles or difficulties he may encounter, nothing will throw him off course. He will accept whatever he experiences with patience.”

“…A person with faith has a very good life. Without faith there is no life at all. No one in the world can be free of troubles and hardships of one kind or another, because `Man was born to struggle’ (Job 5:7). But a person who has faith can find comfort even when he has to endure pain and suffering. He knows that God loves him and intends everything for his own ultimate good, to purify and cleanse him. For everything that God does is for the best. But the sophisticated disbeliever has no one to turn to when trouble strikes. He can find comfort nowhere. There is nothing to encourage him. This is why he has no life at all. He walks without God and he does not come under His protective care. But through faith your life can be good always…”


In my practice in public psychiatry over the last twenty years I have noticed the vast majority of patients I’ve encountered claim they believe in G-d or Divine Consciousness.   Usually, at some point in the treatment, the issue of faith come up.

Over the last ten or more years these issues are increasingly relevant in the field of medicine and psychiatry and not only in religious and faith-based communities, but to the wider public of those unaffiliated with “organized religion” with some belief in G-d or Higher Power.   There are a multiplicity anecdotes and even a few scientific studies that show healing or surviving serious illnesses associated with prayer exceeds normal expectations.   To cite WebMD:

“Traditional religious beliefs have a variety of effects on personal health, says Dr. Harold Koenig, senior author of the Handbook of Religion and Health, a new release that documents nearly 1,200 studies done on the effects of prayer on health.

These studies show that religious people tend to live healthier lives. “They’re less likely to smoke, to drink, to drink and drive,” he says. In fact, people who pray tend to get sick less often, as separate studies conducted at Duke, Dartmouth, and Yale universities show. “

One of the most basic elements of prayer is emunah.   And both prayer and emunah can assume an almost infinite variety of forms.   Some meditate, pray in groups, pray in isolation or just think positively.   Even those who deny a Divinity ‘behave’ as if they had some form of faith.  One could say that just walking out the front door requires a certain act of faith that they will return home at all, as does boarding an airplane or depositing money in a bank since all require risk and believe things will work out well despite the contrary can and does happen.

Faith or Emunah, used in the most general sense is an integral part of life.   Perhaps what is less clear and obvious is how one can develop emunah as a way of surmounting problems and living a fuller and happy life.    In the sphere of mental illness it becomes both a great challenge and a necessary tool in rehabilitation.


Rebbe Nachman told many stories later published by his disciples, mainly Rebbe Nathan. These stories teach important lessons of wisdom and good conduct.   All the stories have deep, hidden meanings and yet can be understood on some level by all.   One of the most popular is “The Lost Princes” that has been translated into many languages has been used as a psycho-educational tool.

The story tells of a king with six sons and a daughter.   The king loves this daughter very much and spends a lot of time with her.  One day, with a ‘slip of the tongue’ he said, “The no-good one should take you.”   By the next morning the princess is gone and the viceroy volunteers to find her.   The rest of the story reveals his travels and experiences in his quest to find the princess.   Ultimately he does and returns her to the king.   All these experiences, along the way, represent hidden meanings and there’s an almost unlimited variation of interpretations.   In this “search” for the Lost Princess Rebbe Nachman reveals everyone’s story.   It is the search for ‘faith, joy and meaning.’   For more religious mindsets it’s the search for G-d.

The story presents a chance to re-define one’s life.   The search becomes the meaning, and in spite of all the difficulties, obstacles and distractions, she is always found.   Indeed, if one sets out on this journey, stays on course, he or she is guaranteed success.    This is because the search for “faith” or “(the lost) joy” is success.

In the Psalms, David writes, “Even though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, because the You are with me…”   The person of faith “walks through the valley…”  He’s not born there and he doesn’t die there, nor does he settle or camp there.   The point is “walking through.”   And where is he walking?  Perhaps in search of the ‘lost princess?

Nervous patients, as well as the rest of us, sometimes tend to set limitations and come to conclusions about obstacles we encounter.   These obstacles in life become permanent dwelling places and the search is all but abandoned.   A gentle nod toward resumption of the search can initiate a return to one’s higher path.   Obstacles diminish as one returns to the search for joy and faith.

Just as obstacles are not fixed and static, Faith expands and contracts.  In fact, the greater the faith, the smaller the obstacles.   In Judaism, emunah based on truth becomes Das (knowledge).   There is a lot to be said about acquiring emunah, broadening and deepening one’s faith.   In the search for mental health, faith in one’s good nature is a key ingredient.

Gershon Freedman, MD

This entry was posted in Chassidus and Mental Health, Faith and Mental Health, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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