May 1, 2016

Patients in search of mental health treatment faced exorcisms and guilt instead

April 30, 2016


Hayley Baker was suffering from depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, and suicidal thoughts when she entered a Christian-based mental health treatment facility called Mercy Ministries in 2009. Started by a devout Christian named Nancy Alcorn and funded by wealthy evangelical donors around the country including gospel singer CeCe Winans, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, and Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher, the ministry’s facilities have treated more than 3,000 women. Fourteen of those former patients, including Baker, told Slate that while they were seeking mental health treatment, they were forbidden from taking prescribed medications like Xanax and Adderall, and instead were prayed over, told to surrender to God, asked to read and respond to Christian texts and the founder’s own writings, as well as being yelled at to try and exorcise demons from their bodies. The disillusioned ex-patients now share their stories of support on private email threads under the moniker “Mercy Survivors.”

Christian counseling, as it has become known in the mental health field, has represented a tricky topic for public health policy officials as groups like Mercy Ministries – now known as Mercy Multiplied – have boomed in recent years. The American Association of Christian Counselors had some 15,000 registered members in 1999, and now counts nearly 50,000, according to the report. Many of the faith-based programs are unregulated, and operate shelter-like facilities that aren’t required to have staff certified in mental health training.  Some patients have said the therapies really do work. Out of about 10 percent of Mercy’s patients who answered a survey about their time at a Mercy facility, 94 percent said the ministry transformed their life and restored their hope, while 85 percent said they were well-adjusted to life after the program.

But for Baker and others, the unregulated Christian counseling centers were dangerous to their fragile mental health. Her anxiety and depression returned after her stay, and she continues to struggle with daily tasks like holding down a job. She and the other “Mercy Survivors” now to hope that they can warn others about their experiences with Christian counseling.

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