Sad Girl, Depressed, Unhappy, Woman / ferobanjo, via PixabayAs I’ve remarked before, religious folk have a lot of really strange, if not barbaric, notions about mental illness. They consider it a spiritual problem, not a medical one. What’s more, they’ve been known to use it as a tool to hook people and stay in their lives. Slate magazine just published an exposé of a Christian ministry which ostensibly treats troubled girls, but in reality, it does nothing of the sort (WebCite cached article).

The article is a long one, telling a number of troubling stories, and I recommend reading it through. But here’s an important passage:

[Mercy Multiplied, formerly Mercy Ministries] doesn’t require its counselors to be licensed mental health practitioners, which Christy Singleton, Mercy’s executive director, confirmed in an email. Moreover, Mercy’s licensed counselors or those in training are forbidden to practice psychotherapy, alleges one former counselor who worked for the organization between 2011 and 2012. “They say they do clinical interventions, but I wasn’t allowed to use my clinical experience,” she says. (She requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize her current employment as a secular psychologist.) Instead, the counselor said, executives in Nashville instructed her to walk each woman through the same seven-step counseling model and assign a prescribed regimen of readings, response papers, and audio sermons, which residents were meant to complete as homework before their weekly one-on-one counseling sessions.

[Mercy founder Nancy] Alcorn doesn’t describe the doctrinal origins of Mercy’s counseling in her writings, but [Baylor Univ. psychologist Matthew] Stanford says the Mercy model appears to combine two religious philosophies, Theophostic Prayer Ministry and Restoring the Foundations Ministry. (Alcorn’s original counseling model and RTF Ministry share a name and are similar but not identical.) Both are rooted in the Charismatic Christian movement, which believes in spiritual warfare, the gifts and healing powers of the Holy Spirit, prophesy, the laying of hands to anoint or empower an ailing individual, and salvation from demonic forces through deliverance. “We’re talking about demons in the literal sense,” says Stanford. “[Practitioners might say] ‘You have a spirit of depression,’ meaning an actual demon is causing you to be depressed. Or you could be experiencing depression because generations ago in your family, someone gave an opening for the demonic.”

Multiple former Mercy residents told me that staff members shouted at demons to flee their bodies. Bethany M., a 2007 resident of Mercy’s St. Louis home (who asked that Slate withhold her last name due to privacy concerns) says staff threatened to expel her from the program if she didn’t let a visiting evangelist lay hands and prophesy over her during a sermon. When mononucleosis swept through the Lincoln home, Hayley says staff blamed the outbreak on evil spirits and asked the residents to walk through the halls calling for the spirits’ banishment.

Mercy’s public statements on demons are inconsistent. Its website states that the group does “not perform or endorse exorcisms” [cached]. And Singleton says Mercy neither emphasizes Charismatic teachings nor mandates the laying of hands on residents. The enemy, she says, isn’t some evil force “but the lies we tell ourselves.” Yet in a 2008 speech at the Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, Alcorn said that Mercy “deals with areas of demonic oppression.” Then she laid out her feelings on the matter: “If there’s demonic activity, like if somebody has opened themselves up to the spirit of lust or pornography or lots of promiscuous sexual activity, then we’ve opened the door for demonic powers. And secular psychiatrists want to medicate things like that, but Jesus did not say to medicate a demon. He said to cast them out. And that’s supposed to be a part of normal Christianity.”

As a former fundamentalist Christian, I can confirm that the idea that illnesses — especially of the mental variety — are of demonic, not natural, origin is very common. Obviously this ministry isn’t in the business of treating mental illnesses, they’re just using these troubled girls to extort money from their families, who often — and erroneously — think they’re being “treated.” The Slate article goes on to describe how Mercy’s so-called “treatment” methods also resemble the long-ago-debunked “repressed memory” trope that ruined so many lives just a few decades ago.

You may be asking why this outfit is allowed to operate this way, using unscientific treatment methods as they do. But answering that question leads to the most troubling aspect of all: Mercy’s facilities are unlicensed, because they are, supposedly, religious ministries. They can essentially do whatever they want. There’s no oversight, no regulation, no nothing. Because Jesus:

In 2011, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals received a call about Mercy’s home in West Monroe. The caller said the residence was operating without a license from the department, according to a DHH spokeswoman. But when DHH investigated, it determined the home didn’t actually need a license because it wasn’t providing “services for compensation.” Instead, the program was “operating in a way that is similar to a homeless shelter,” where residents receive food and lodging for free, according to the state’s DHH lawyers.

In an email last April, Singleton told me that Mercy’s three adult facilities are licensed by social services agencies in their respective states. But agency representatives at both Louisiana’s and Missouri’s departments of social services, health, and mental health could find no records of Mercy in their systems. When I emailed Singleton in April 2015 to ask for clarification, she stopped responding. When I wrote her again this month, a full year later, she said she had nothing to add.

It’s long past time for religious folk, especially of the fundamentalist Christian variety, to stop exploiting the mentally ill. Religiously-flavored pseudopsychology is not a valid alternative to the real thing. It should be obvious that it’s not ethical to target a vulnerable population and use them to one’s own spiritual — or worse, financial — gain. Yet Alcorn, Singleton and their ilk happily do so, nonetheless. It’s time for state authorities to stop giving phony treatment centers like Mercy’s a “pass” merely because they’re religious in nature. If they claim to treat mental illness, they should be evaluated, licensed, and monitored just like any other such facility — period.

Photo credit: ferobanjo, via Pixabay.

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