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Monday, April 2, 2012

"It is I, The Messiah": Psychiatric illness or Divine Inspiration?

"I am Jesus!", "No I am Jesus" , "Well you can both can be Jesus, because I am the only Moses, that's right no beard!" You can walk around the streets of New York, Miami, LA, Vatican City, Rome and will undoubtedly find A Jesus, or A Moses,  or A Mary, or even an Allah. Most of us laugh, and walk by, some even give a stare and we ask ourselves: Are the people who claim and proclaim to be the Messiah, do they actually believe it or are they simply suffering from psychiatric illness??

As I like to do over the weekend besides sleeping and eating, I like to catch up on reading from the only magazine I subscribe to, WIRED. This magazine is primarily about gadgets, electronics, nuances of the internet, back stories of people of the web and tech industries. They often have amazing articles on random interesting topics in pop-culture. In the March 2012 issue, Chris Nashawaty wrote an article, The Jerusalem Syndrome: Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah. The article chronicles a man named "Ronald Hodge" and his demise from working and being married to unemployed, divorced, in Jerusalem and suddenly believing he is Jesus Christ, oh yea and then being hospitalized psychiatricly.  Dr. Peseach Lichtenberg, is the head of the psychiatric department at the Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem and has been working with the patients who are Dx as having the Jerusalem Syndrome for over 20 years. The Jerusalem Syndrome is whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes preoccupied by the particular religion they associate with and develop psychotic features after arriving in Jerusalem. That is a very important line "person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology" because that would lead someone to believe that these types of people become psychotic due their surroundings of holiness(ie Jerusalem) and not for any another reason. Dr. Lichtenberg reported that "In two decades at Herzog, the number of false prophets and self-appointed redeemers he has treated is in the low three figures". He goes on to say "that during times of uncertainty and conflict (not infrequent in Israel), admissions to his ward spike". According to Kalian & Witztum, 1998 it has been noted that about 18% of the tourists who need psychiatric hospitalization in Jerusalem display significant features of the syndrome. 

In the Journal of Mental Health, Religion and Culture; Kalian, Catinari, Heresco-Levi,& Witztum(2008) wrote an article called, Spiritual Starvation’’ in a Holy Space—a Form of "Jerusalem Syndrome". It gave case examples of the Jerusalem Syndrome. They wrote that "Not surprisingly, religious beliefs are commonly encountered in psychiatric practice and, like any other type of belief, span a continuum from normal to delusional. However, religious beliefs can present a unique challenge to the clinician attempting to identify where along this spectrum a particular belief lies (or delusion sets in)".

Which brings us to my original question: Psychiatric Illness or Divine Inspiration? Dr. Yoram Bilu, an Israeli psychological anthropologist at the University of Chicago Divinity School said that "It’s just the trigger...the majority of people who suffer from Jerusalem syndrome have some psychiatric history before they get here". Meaning they aren't completely balanced and devoid as mentioned earlier, but they might not be having full blown psychosis until there is some trigger, whether it be a life altering change (i.e. death, divorce, unemployment) but the mental illness stays dormant until a trigger occurs. When it comes to the Jerusalem syndrome, the trigger is religion/environmental based. 

So the answer is both! Religion to a certain extent relies on faith and belief without having concrete proof. To say that someone has a psychiatric illness because they believe, obviously would be ludicrous. Conversely, if a person had this enlightenment at a critical time in their life which led to psychosis or delusions or hallucinations. I think it would be a safe bet saying that the "divine inspiration" was a rationalization and the "trigger" for a much bigger problem.

Interesting stuff!
Happy Monday!


  1. I forget my sources, but I wrote a paper in college that cited some historians who suggested that Shabbtai Zvi, the famous false Messiah from the 1600's had bipolar disorder, possibly with psychotic features. He did indeed spend a number of years in Jerusalem!

    As I recall, there were some historical accounts from his disciples that described periods of intense darkness, sadness, and despair, and other periods of elation and spiritual enlightenment.

    I suppose it's hard to diagnose someone who's been dead for hundreds of years...

    1. Wow! That is pretty interesting!!! Thanks E!