“The Mercy Girls”

This investigative piece by Jennifer Miller was originally appeared as a cover story in Slate, and can be viewed here.

These young women enrolled in an influential Christian counseling center for help.  That’s not what they found.

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1. “He grants sleep to those he loves”

Life wasn’t easy for Hayley Baker before the rages began, but it was tolerable. She attended a small Christian college near her home in Folsom, California, where she majored in architecture, studied astronomy in her spare time, played the harp, and taught herself to make sushi. But Hayley also suffered from major depression, social anxiety, occasional suicidal ideation, and an eating disorder. Doctors couldn’t agree on how to help her—since childhood, they’d cycled her through 15 different drugs—though most attributed her problems to childhood abuse. Caretakers had repeatedly molested her between the ages of 3 and 6, and she’d been humiliated at age 4 by a babysitter who tied her to a chair and taped her mouth shut while the sitter’s own kids ran around her in circles. Her anxiety became so extreme that she dropped out of school.

In her mid-20s, Hayley was diagnosed with a heart condition, which doctors told her was a side effect of her medications. But when she stopped taking the drugs, she lost control, punching walls and cutting herself out of frustration. Once, her mother became so frightened for her own safety that she called the police. Hayley spent the night in the psychiatric ward. Meanwhile, the family could barely cover its expenses, let alone Hayley’s therapy. “It was a dark time,” she says.

Then, in 2009, something cut through the darkness like a signal fire. Mercy Ministries, a network of in-patient facilities that treat young women with mental illness, addiction, and life trauma, and which has the backing of some of the most prominent names in evangelical Christianity, was opening a new residence in Lincoln, California, close to Hayley’s home. Hayley knew about Mercy because a Christian band she liked, Point of Grace, supported the program. And she learned online that Mercy’s unusual fusion of biblically inspired healing and what it described on its website as “best-practice clinical interventions” could help hurting women like herself “break free from the destructive cycles controlling their lives.” Mercy’s literature boasted that its four U.S. residences were state-licensed and that 80 percent of its counselors had master’s degrees in psychology, social work, or a related field. Hayley’s family believed that the Lincoln home would provide her with a truly integrated approach to mental health—the secular and the spiritual. Best of all, Mercy was free.

Hayley, who is a devout Christian, believed God had answered her prayers. “I thought the new home was a sign,” she says. “I wanted to believe that God would make a change in me. I wanted it desperately.”

Like all new applicants, Hayley landed on a waitlist. She was instructed to read books by Mercy’s founder, Nancy Alcorn, and testimonials from Mercy graduates who had overcome all manner of mental illness and trauma. She discussed audio sermons and response papers over the phone with a Mercy intake representative. After seven months, Hayley’s acceptance letter finally arrived.

Compared to the tidy bungalow where Hayley lived with her mother, Mercy’s sprawling, light-filled facility was magnificent. On the first day, the staff was every bit as welcoming as Mercy’s literature had promised. But that night, alone in a strange dorm room, Hayley roiled with panic. She asked attendants for her prescription Xanax but says they refused. Instead, they offered to pray with her and gave her a sheet of paper titled “Peaceful Sleep,” with a bolded line from Psalm 127:2: “He grants sleep to those he loves.” Hayley tried to pray, but sleep didn’t come. For the rest of the night, she lay awake, still panicking, wondering if God had abandoned her.

Peaceful sleep

Over her seven months at Mercy, Hayley says staff often denied her requests for Xanax, instead emphasizing prayer as a better way to treat the panic attacks. She also says she was punished with extra reading and chores for infractions as minor as sharing her CD player. When her brother died unexpectedly a month into her stay, Mercy didn’t bring in the certified grief counselor that her parents had requested, she says. According to Hayley, Mercy staff unswervingly held her and others to a one-size-fits-all counseling curriculum. Six years after leaving Mercy, Hayley continues to wrestle with mental illness.

Training opportunity

Mercy—which, after 32 years of operating as Mercy Ministries, rebranded as Mercy Multiplied this past October—touts that upward of 3,000 women have come to one of its centers somehow broken and left feeling whole. Hayley desperately wanted to be one of them. Instead she says she encountered a program that demanded total submission to its methods and to God. It was, and is, a place that treats the devil as something frighteningly real—the kind of approach that may work for many residents but overwhelms others with guilt and fear.

In a larger sense, Mercy illustrates what happens when a hard-line, religiously oriented organization inserts itself into a gaping hole in the United States’ mental heath system. Because organizations like Mercy are barely subject to government oversight, it’s likely not an anomaly.

For all these reasons, Hayley and others want to drag Mercy’s transgressions into the light. In the years since her time at the Lincoln facility, Hayley has connected with a group of Mercy alumnae, their families, and former staff. They call themselves the “Mercy Survivors,” and since 2009 they have communicated through two private email lists. The 14 former residents and five families I interviewed for this story—all members of those lists—say that Mercy emphasizes faith healing, despite marketing language that suggests a strong embrace of scientifically based treatments. They say the program pressures, guilts, and spiritually manipulates residents into following a counseling model that treats every problem, from anorexia to childhood abuse, the exact same way. They say Mercy staff’s lack of formal clinical training puts mentally ill or traumatized clients at greater psychological risk, even pushing them deeper into depression and addiction. Some say that under the guidance of their counselors, several Mercy residents falsely accused their families of horrific abuse. Parents have watched their daughters vanish from their lives after exiting the program, in some cases without any explanation.

These accusations shouldn’t damn all religiously based therapy. Academics in psychiatry, neuroscience, and biomedical ethics acknowledge that purely secular mental health approaches may have little success with devout patients. The fusion of secular and spiritual interventions has been shown to succeed where the former alone has failed, sparking a debate among mental health professionals over the most effective ways to combine the two. Proponents of such joint approaches are now actively trying to bridge the wide historical gap between the secular mental health community and the church.

At the same time, the booming field of strictly Christian counseling is almost entirely unregulated by the medical and psychological establishments, in part due to a lack of consensus among Christians about what “Christian counseling” should look like. It is here that a program like Mercy can flourish, by harnessing Christian skepticism of the country’s secular mental health system while simultaneously taking advantage of that system’s language and regulatory holes.

Hayley Baker and the other Mercy Survivors did not understand that impersonal medical bureaucracy offers certain standards and protections that a religious organization lacks. What they saw was an organization that claimed to be an engine of God and that would heal them.

2. “Jesus did not say to medicate a demon”

With its purported emphasis on clinical best practices, Mercy plays both sides of a tension within modern psychiatric practice that stretches back to its roots. The first psychiatric communities were church-based—the Catholic Church provided unprecedented care for the mentally ill in 14th-century Geel, Belgium, and 19th-century Quakers started America’s first psychiatric facilities. But the “fathers of psychology,” like Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov, and Erich Fromm, were atheists. “Many saw faith as mental illness,” says Matthew Stanford, a Baylor University psychologist who studies the fusion of secular medicine and religious belief, as well as CEO of the Hope and Healing Center in Houston. “Freud thought religion was neurosis.”

Meanwhile, some faithful were angered by the growing popularity of psychotherapy and believed that proponents of psychopharmacological treatment were playing God. This response crystallized in the 1970s with the Biblical Counseling Movement, founded by Jay Adams, a Presbyterian pastor who believed mental illness was a sign of spiritual and moral corruption. Mercy doesn’t fit squarely in the Biblical Counseling camp, but at least some of the time, it channels the movement’s suspicions of mainstream care. When Mercy’s leaders speak to mainline Christians, they present themselves as “integrationists” in favor of fusing spiritual and secular health interventions. But when Mercy’s founder, Nancy Alcorn, addresses a more conservative audience, she offers an entirely different message.

Alcorn became born again as a young woman, after injuries ended her dream of playing college basketball. She went on to work as an athletic director for at-risk youth at the Tennessee Department of Corrections and in the Emergency Child Protective Services unit at Nashville’s Department of Children’s Services. But in 1983, she claims in her writings, God told her that if she committed to healing troubled girls free of charge and without government funding, then he would personally set up “divine connections” to help her succeed. The first Mercy home opened in Monroe, Louisiana, that same year.

Divine or not, those connections have grown Mercy’s operating budget to $8.5 million (and Alcorn’s salary to $242,598 as of 2014, according to tax documents). Its funding stems from churches nationwide and wealthy Christian power players such as personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Grammy-winning gospel singer CeCe Winans, and Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who donates annually to Mercy through a celebrity softball game fundraiser. Popular Charismatic Christian movement evangelist Joyce Meyer has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mercy and helped open the program’s residence outside St. Louis. Mercy runs four homes in the United States (three solely for adults and one that also houses pregnant teens) and has affiliates in Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. It has also purchased land in North Carolina and Florida for more homes. (Alcorn declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The 61-year-old Alcorn resembles a smoothly preserved woman of about 45, her cornsilk hair and tanned skin as flawless as her favored leather jackets and vests, her friendly twang and photogenic smile masking the fierce intensity of her faith. She believes that mainstream programs like the ones she used to administer don’t address the generational patterns and underlying traumas that make young adults unstable. “In secular treatment, the focus is on changing behavior, which is temporary and gives surface results,” she writes in her book Ditch the Baggage, Change Your Life. “Behavior modification is not the answer. It offers no heart change.”

The seven-part counseling model Alcorn created was originally called Restoring the Foundations. It leads residents through steps including choosing to forgive one’s abusers, eradicating negative self-perceptions, and overcoming toxic behaviors that Alcorn believed passed spiritually through the family line. Through Jesus Christ, Alcorn writes, women can overcome oppressive forces in their lives, which she describes as the schemes and deceptions of the “enemy.”

Generational patterns

Mercy 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.

Alcorn doesn’t describe the doctrinal origins of Mercy’s counseling in her writings, but 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.” 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.”

Today, the sixth step in Alcorn’s seven-step counseling model is called Freedom From Oppression—but before 2009, it was called “Demonic Oppression,” according to three former residents. Mercy changed the name shortly after administrators at Mercy-branded facilities in Australia were found to have stolen residents’ welfare checks and local papers reported that employees at these homes were practicing exorcisms. Sarah Grech, a co-manager of the Mercy Survivor network, who lived in Mercy’s Sydney home in 2006, knew of girls “who were kind of pounced on without notice, being held down to the floor, with staff screaming at the girl saying ‘shut up!’ when she tried to speak or protest because that was seen as a demon speaking.”

After Australian authorities shut down the country’s two residences, Alcorn said that Mercy had no direct relationship with those facilities. Yet Charisma magazine, a leading publication of the Charismatic movement, reported that Alcorn visited Mercy’s Australian homes 22 times between 2001 and 2004.

Why would Mercy publicly distance itself from a form of treatment it appears to believe in? Candy Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, speculates that the organization downplays its Charismatic influences because such things might make mainstream Christians—men such as Gov. Haslam and Coach Fisher—uncomfortable. “Anytime you’re talking about the demonic or deliverance, it’s very controversial,” she says. “And if a group is trying to solicit donations from a broad spectrum of evangelicals, they wouldn’t want to advertise that.”

3. “The choice is yours

With its lofty ceilings and ski-lodge stonework, Mercy’s 22,000-square-foot Lincoln home, located about 30 miles north of Sacramento, has the look and feel of a vacation retreat. When I visited in November 2013, residents in their late teens and 20s were sprawled around the premises on couches and armchairs. They read from assigned books and listened to sermons on portable CD players. Multiple times a week, they also worked out at a local gym, took classes on money management and nutrition, or studied for their GEDs. They cooked communal meals, cleaned their bathrooms, and did laundry. They bunked two to a room and were allowed to call home once a week, on Sunday.

During my tour, the staff repeatedly stressed that residents knew they had signed up for a biblically based counseling program. “The last thing we want is for women to be surprised,” said Singleton, who had flown in from Mercy’s Nashville headquarters to meet me. “It’s assumed that people who are coming to Mercy know that ‘best-practice clinical interventions’ really means Christian counseling.”

But even within the religious community, “Christian counseling” can mean just about anything. It could range from “didactic Bible-oriented counseling”—that is, treatment hostile to secular medicine—to psychotherapy that’s simply “informed by Christian values,” says John Peteet, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. There’s no agreed-upon definition, whereas clinical interventions andprofessional counseling staff have very strict meanings. “From a professional ethics perspective, what’s on [Mercy’s] website is deceptive,” says Baylor’s Stanford, a devout Christian, who himself believes in the healing power of prayer and the existence of demonic forces. Because Mercy doesn’t actually require its counseling staff to be licensed, they’re not subject to state-administered standards of clinical knowledge, a minimum number of training hours, or legal oversight. That, says Stanford, means “they’ve overstepped their bounds.”

As members of the Mercy Survivors group tell it, much of Mercy’s Christian counseling methods did indeed come as a surprise. Hayley was particularly bothered by step five in the seven-step treatment. Here, a Mercy counselor asks a resident to recall a traumatic memory or to let Jesus reveal a moment of past trauma and then imagine that Christ is there, absolving her of any guilt related to the event. “I couldn’t make up Jesus saying something to me,” Hayley says. “I didn’t blame myself for the abuse.” Hayley says she appealed to her counselor, who replied, “This is what we need to do. This is the only way.” Week after week, Hayley repeated the exercise but to no avail. (Peteet, of Harvard Medical School, allows that some patients could benefit from this kind of visualization—“but if it’s being presented as the only way to go for everybody, that would concern me,” he says.)

Other women described feeling similar pressure to follow the counseling model or risk being called insubordinate. When Lily Mershon entered the Lincoln home in 2009 at age 23, she was anorexic, barely weighed 80 pounds, and had no health insurance. Because Mercy homes aren’t licensed by state departments of health, they can legally only accept people who are deemed medically stable. But Lily had convinced her doctor to sign off on the medical records, telling him that the program was her only option. Then, just after Lily was admitted, she realized that she had forgotten to bring her Adderall. The Mercy staff wouldn’t immediately connect her with a doctor and instead had her sign a form confirming that she’d willingly given up the pills. Lily soon decided she wanted to go home. “They prayed over me and put hands on me,” she says. “They made me feel like this was my only chance to live and if I left [early] there would be no more chances.” And so she stayed.


Whenever Lily brought up her anorexia, her counselor would say, “Have you prayed about it? Have you talked to God about it?” “And I thought maybe I’m the weird one for not having this open heart,” Lily says. In order to please her counselor, she began praying out loud and saying that God had spoken to her. The performance eventually felt real; it was, she says, “a slow brainwashing.” Mercy would later present Lily as a model of success in its promotional materials. Today Lily is married and has a young son but continues to struggle with anorexia and describes herself as emotionally broken. In fact, she’d purged daily while at Mercy and says her counselors never noticed. “I don’t trust people anymore,” she says. “I feel very empty inside. I’m trying to get better for my son.” (Asked about Hayley, Lily, and other former residents, Mercy declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing its clients.)

At Mercy’s St. Louis home, Bethany M. experienced a similar cycle. If she didn’t participate enough in group therapy, the staff reprimanded her, which pushed her to cut herself—the very reason she’d come to Mercy in the first place. After months of this, the staff discovered her cutting; Mercy was legally obligated to admit her to a state psychiatric facility, which it did. But upon release, Bethany begged Mercy to take her back—and the organization complied. “They made Mercy seem like God or even above God,” Bethany said. The way she’d come to see it, getting kicked out would mean that God had rejected her. But her cutting continued, and Mercy released her for good. “I felt like I’d lost my life,” she said. To fill the void, Bethany turned to drinking and drugs.

“The way the spiritual is executed is very abusive,” says the former Mercy counselor. “Taking women who have very severe mental health issues and saying they’re not choosing freedom when they’re not ‘healed’ in a certain period of time—it puts the problem back on the girls. And they’re already really broken and hurting.” She says women like Bethany who don’t graduate believe “it’s their fault,” and those like Hayley and Lily, who do graduate, “struggle because they’re supposed to be healed and they don’t know why they’re not.”

4. “The Lost Girls”

According to her parents, Ellen developed endometriosis at age 16. The painful disease required hormones, medications, and surgery and sent Ellen into a depression that a series of doctors were unable to cure. But at the age of 20, Ellen discovered Mercy Ministries and asked her parents if she could attend. She and her parents are devout Christians who believed Mercy would provide a valuable mix of spiritual guidance and mental health support from board-certified psychologists. Ellen applied in May 2010, arrived at the Lincoln home the following October, and graduated eight months later.

After Mercy, Ellen no longer seemed depressed, but she was acting strangely. One day she was affectionate with her parents; the next day she was reserved. Then she left their home in Elk Grove, California, moved in with a family friend, and sent her parents a letter that changed their lives. In it, Ellen described multiple ways in which her parents had abused her, including rape at her father’s hands and sex trafficking. “If any of this was true, we should be in jail. We should be hung,” says her mom, Sherry. Hearing this from her only child, Sherry says, “just broke me.” (No charges were ever filed. I spoke to Ellen’s parents, pastor, best friend, and the family she moved in with, all of whom affirm Sherry’s side of this story. Ellen, who has since changed her name, could not be reached for comment.)

Ellen’s parents begged for an explanation and finally received one. At Mercy, Ellen had met with her counselor and, as she described it, emptied herself before the Holy Spirit. “ ‘Whatever the Spirit told us, that’s what happened,’ ” Sherry recalls her daughter saying. “She called this event her ‘deliverance.’ ” Ellen and her parents met a few times after that but could never reach an understanding. In March 2012, Ellen sent her parents a note saying that she was leaving California and not to contact her again.

It’s nearly impossible to verify or disprove Ellen’s accusations, but the events described by her parents fit into a larger pattern that at least nine families of Mercy attendees have experienced: A young woman enters Mercy for issues unrelated to abuse and comes out accusing her family of horrific sexual violations. Of the nine families, seven have lost contact with their daughters.

Stories like this used to be common. In the 1990s, some psychiatrists used a treatment called recovered memory therapy, which encouraged patients to dig deep into their memories and find trauma that could explain their suffering. Instead, it led patients into their own imaginations; a wave of false memories of childhood abuse followed. Recovered memory therapy is now widely discredited.

The therapy isn’t mentioned anywhere in Mercy’s materials, and Singleton insists the organization has never used it. “Sadly,” she says, “our patients are often from fractured homes and challenging backgrounds and don’t need to be coerced to create accounts of heart-wrenching childhoods and upbringings.”

If that’s true, what explains these accusations and their striking similarities? It could be a confluence of factors, according to psychologists I asked about Mercy’s methods, and it may start with the organization’s emphasis on sexual abuse narratives. From the waiting list onward, women receive testimonials by Mercy girls who were molested, as well as books and sermons by author and speaker Meyer, who talks about being raped by her father. This focus on abuse stories—and the preaching of God’s power to heal such trauma—is central to Mercy’s counseling process, regardless of why a woman entered the program. This could create a culture of peer pressure, in which women feel they need to be saved from a sufficiently terrible event, psychologists say. A number of the women I interviewed describe an environment in which the more dramatic a woman’s graduation testimonial, the more she was considered the perfect “Mercy girl.”

“Any time there’s a power differential, therapeutic interventions are susceptible to manipulation,” says Keith Meador, the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society and a professor of psychiatry and health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Secular or religious. That’s why it’s so important that there be systematic training, licensure, and regulation in any type of context of intervention.” Mercy survivors report feeling this power imbalance acutely—they came to believe that the staff spoke with God’s authority.

Affected families tell similar tales. One woman, Asja, went to the Lincoln home to work through complicated feelings about her childhood: Her father abused prescription drugs and alcohol, and her parents had split up. But after graduation, Asja cut ties with her family. Then, in a promotional Mercy article, she said God helped her overcome molestation at her mother’s hands. Asja’s sister, Danielle, theorizes that her sister had “heard a lot of bad stories and maybe [her accusations] were a way to fit in.” Another woman, Christina, went to Mercy’s California home in 2010 for an eating disorder. While there, she said she’d dreamed that her grandmother’s boyfriend had molested her. “Christina’s therapist told her that dreams were God’s way of showing hidden trauma,” her mother says. After graduation she moved in with another Mercy girl, who alsoreported being molested by her grandfather. Soon, Christina’s story expanded further: She claimed that she’d been raped by her father and sex-trafficked by her parents—the same accusations made by Ellen.

Of the nine severed families I spoke to, only two of the actual Mercy attendees were willing to discuss the incidents, both on the condition that they not be quoted or identified in any way. One offered a basic outline of how her accusation came to be. It began, she said, with nightmares she had at Mercy about being sexually abused by a neighbor. Her counselors interpreted this as evidence that she was involved in a sex ring. Under Mercy staff’s guidance, the woman says, she described horrific details about her life as a prostitute—which seemed and felt true at the time. But later, she says, she realized that her stories were nearly identical to testimonials that other Mercy graduates had written and were posted on the “Success Stories” section of Mercy’s website. That’s what caused her to begin questioning herself.

The second woman I spoke to went to Mercy to address her drug addiction and other self-harming behaviors, including multiple suicide attempts. Her counselor interpreted a cryptic dream as evidence that her father had raped her. The woman had no recollection of such an event but says she felt pressure to believe her counselor’s assessment; after all, the staff seemed to speak with God’s authority. Guided by Mercy staff, the woman sent her father an email accusing him of rape. It took many years of distance from Mercy for the woman to begin to doubt her accusation. And it was only after months of professional therapy and treatment for previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder that she was able to reunite with her parents.

Singleton wouldn’t discuss specific accusations of abuse, but allegations have been raised enough times that Mercy put this disclaimer on its website: “Mercy Ministries does not practice Recovered Memory Therapy.” This past October, when the organization rebranded itself as Mercy Multiplied, the disclaimer disappeared.

5. “Licensed by 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. (At that time, Mercy’s website also said its homes were state-licensed. When Mercy rebranded, the licensing statement disappeared.)

Had the homes in fact been licensed, they would have been unusual among residential treatment facilities. Such residences are generally not equipped to care for women withserious mental health issues, according to lawyers for the National Disability Rights Network. In California, such facilities “cannot accept a resident whose primary need is acute psychiatric care due to a mental disorder,” says the California Department of Social Services. Mercy requires all incoming residents to provide medical histories and proof of medical stability. Yet the organization targets a client base whose untreated mental illness makes their physical or emotional instability a real possibility. Women like Lily, Bethany, and others interviewed for this story—all likely unstable when they entered the program—slipped in anyway. Of course, even facilities with licensed mental health providers can make assessment mistakes. But with no licensing body or standardized training available for Christian counselors, it’s likely that their clients will end up in programs that Meador says are “trying to do work that they’re not trained or equipped to do.”

Lily’s discharge summary—a one-page document signed by her counselor—is a snapshot of that problem. Upon graduation, her counselor wrote that Lily had overcome the following alphabetized list of issues: “Abandonment, all abuse, ADHD, anger, anxiety (social), apathy, attention seeking behavior, authority issues, Bipolar, Borderline, chemical dependency, compliance, depression, desire to be here, detox, eating disorder, family issues, general suitability, impulsive, lesbianism, lying, marital issues, medical suitability, occult, OCD, PTSD, relationship difficulties, rejection, self-harm, self-esteem issues, sexual promiscuity, stealing, and suicidal thoughts.” The counselor concluded that “[w]hen Lily chose to fully surrender to God, she experienced significant behavior and emotional changes.”

Discharge summary

With Lily’s permission, I shared the document with Meador. “This lacks coherency in its run-on usage of a mix of clinical terms and is generally lacking in professionalism,” he said, after reading it. The discharge suggests that Lily’s counselor is working “in territory they shouldn’t be in.”

Christian counseling has two schools. One is open to a fusion of religious and secular approaches and is represented by the umbrella group the American Association of Christian Counselors, or AACC. The organization’s lengthy ethical code outlines the need for individualized treatment, of never forcing one’s point of view on clients, and making sure that clients are fully comfortable with the religious beliefs and practices used in counseling sessions. Singleton says the head counselors of Mercy’s homes are AACC members. But many of Mercy’s former clients allege methods that would be in violation of AACC guidelines.

The other school is entirely biblically based and comprises programs that disregard secular mental health practices. Some of these residential programs geared toward troubled teens across the country have been criticized for their harsh practices. In 2002, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a seven-part investigative series about Christian reform schools in Missouri. Two schools closed as a result. In 2012, Time ran a story outlining similar abuses in Florida. These programs focus on minors and don’t explicitly address mental illness, but like Mercy, their Bible-based approach appeals to a population that has little faith in secular support services.

Meanwhile, programs like Mercy are rapidly multiplying. In 1999, the AACC reported 15,000 members; today there are 50,000. And they’re embraced by an audience of believers—not just in Christ but in Christ-driven treatment. Forty-eight percent of self-described evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist Christians believe Bible study and prayer can cure serious mental illness, according to a 2013 study by the conservative Christian body LifeWay Research. And in fact, spiritual interventions can be highly effective. A 2011 meta-analysis of 46 studies, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that that religiously or spiritually integrated therapies for individuals from devout backgrounds can have “better psychological and spiritual outcomes” than nontreatment controls. Meador says a program like Mercy could provide “substantive and enduring benefits” for some people—not necessarily those with serious mental illness but individuals facing various developmental challenges. “What they really benefit from is the structure, boundaries, and someone telling them, ‘This is how you live well.’ Hearing women say that the program saved their lives doesn’t surprise me at all.”

And many Mercy clients say just that. Ninety-four percent of respondents on 2013 surveys (commissioned by Mercy and conducted by independent firms) answered “yes” to the question, “Did Mercy Ministries help you transform your life and restore your hope?” Eighty-two percent said they were “well adjusted to life” after leaving the program. And 85 percent said they had spent time at other treatment centers before Mercy, without long-term results. Roughly 10 percent of Mercy’s total graduate pool responded to the survey,according to Mercy’s website.

Mercy contends that this overwhelmingly positive feedback proves the program’s effectiveness, even if some former residents don’t agree. “We’re [working] with women who need help from self-reported destructive patterns,” says Singleton. “They are going to be unhappy with us, if they don’t get to the place they want.”

6. “He will give you the desires of your heart

Hayley eventually gave in. She says she stopped resisting her counselor’s instructions and stopped questioning the system. Maybe she was to blame for her own failure, she remembers thinking. Maybe she hadn’t tried hard enough. Before graduating from the Lincoln home, Hayley wrote the following testimonial: “Mercy has taught me a new way to live. I never thought that I would be capable of living a life on my own—a life dependent on God and not on medication or the approval of other people. A life filled with joy and peace instead of guilt.”

Mercy told Hayley that if she tithed to the organization, God would bless her. She donated $1,000. (Four women, each of whom attended a different Mercy home, told me the organization heavily stresses the importance of tithing to Mercy.) On her graduation day, Hayley’s parents presented her with a leather and gold-plate bracelet, etched with Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

But at home, Hayley’s anxiety and depression returned. She grew increasingly introverted, finding it impossible to trust anyone. Before Mercy, she’d suffered from low self-esteem; now, she says, she felt worthless. “I thought Mercy would be this place where the staff would love on you and be there for you,” she says. “Instead they beat the spirit out of you.” Mercy had taught Hayley the dangers of having too much hope and too much belief—not in God, she says, but in other people. These days, she believes that she alone—without regular therapy, Christian counselors, or Jesus—must forge her way forward.

Hayley is still living at home, still without a job, and her family remains in tough financial straits. She fills her days by cooking and practicing the harp. She’s planning to go back to school, possibly to study psychology. And she’s been writing about her Mercy experience, which she hopes to one day share with others—young women like herself who might believe they’ve found a godsend. Today, much of the graduation testimony she wrote sounds hollow, but her closing words are starting to ring true. “Through Mercy Ministries,” she wrote, “God has removed the tape from my mouth and given me back my voice.”

“Crying ‘Mercy’: Christian Women and Mental Health”

This piece by Jennifer Danielle Crumpton was originally published on Huffington Post, Huffington Post (HuffPost Religion) and can be viewed here.

“Through Mercy Ministries, God has removed the tape from my mouth and given me back my voice.”

This was the Christian counseling program graduation testimony of a woman named Hayley who was abused by caretakers as a child and suffered from depression, social anxiety, suicidal ideation and an eating disorder. The devout Christian went to Mercy for help, but came away with only more trauma. At Mercy, submission to God was measured by unquestioned submission to the rigid, one-size-fits-all religious methods of the counseling.

Years later, Hayley realizes this statement meant something completely different. The experience at Mercy actually woke her up to the importance of knowing and trusting herself, and speaking up for herself and others against forced religious beliefs that may stunt and even set back healing.

She is using her voice today in a Slate piece by Jennifer Miller to help educate Christian women about the real experience she had at Mercy.

I recently had a conversation with journalist Jennifer Miller about her important article ‘Mercy Girls’, which relays the stories of some young women and families who looked to a Christian ministry now called Mercy Multiplied for help in their struggles with trauma, addiction and mental illness. But the program they entered was not at all what they expected.

Miller gives these women a voice, explores both the benefits and drawbacks of faith-based therapies, and shines a light on the gaps in the American mental health system that leave people without the care they need, leading them into perhaps inappropriate and unhealthy alternatives.

Watch our brief discussion and let me know what you think:


“Counseling Bill starts to cost the state in lost revenue”

This article by Cari Wade Gervin was originally published by The Nashville Scene (Pith in the Wind) and can be viewed here.

his afternoon, the American Counseling Association canceled its planned 2017 annual conference at the Music City Center over concerns with the recently signed bill that allows counselors to reject clients based on with whom they like to have sex (or based on any other “sincerely held principles” a counselor might hold). And Richard Yep, the CEO of ACA, did not mince words, stating in a press release announcing the cancelation: “Of all the state legislation I have seen passed in my 30 years with ACA, the new Tennessee law based on Senate Bill 1556/House Bill 1840 is by far the worst.”

Sure, it’s just one conference, just 3,000 less people who will visit Nashville next summer. Sure, it’s just $4 million less in estimated tax revenue (and lord knows, those economic estimates of conventions are regularly overstated). But when the governor’s press secretary is issuing weak statements like,”They had said they were considering that, and they won’t experience all that Tennessee has to offer,” well, that’s not really encouraging.

This is not going to be the last conference canceled. This is not going to be the last lost revenue. Haslam may be trying to drum up business from Asia right now, but he should be more worried about all the business the legislature’s homophobia and hate is about to cost the state.

Update, 10:20 p.m.: Jennifer Donnals, the otherwise very pleasant press secretary of Gov. Bill Haslam, with whom’s statement we took issue earlier, sent along a follow-up comment this evening. (Which, because I was out at dinner, took a bit to get to.) She comments:

You’ll remember that just two years ago the ACA followed the same practice and recommendation that this law puts in place. The governor believes that, at the end of the day, counselors should be like any other professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, and have the availability to decide whether they can appropriately serve a client. This law provides that a therapist cannot turn away someone in a life-threatening situation and has to refer the client to another appropriate therapist, providing protection for the client as well as respecting the therapist as a professional.

For what it’s worth — which, to the Tennessee GOP, obviously is nada — there was nothing previously in the law preventing counselors of any faith or political inclination from declining to see patients, for any reason. In fact, therapists across the state decline new patients on a daily basis because the would-be patients don’t have the right insurance, or the therapists’ calendars are already too full, or just because they don’t feel like they’d be the right fit with a particular patient. There are many Christian therapists doing excellent work across the state; they were not the ones pushing for this bill.

I’d also note that while Haslam seems so very concerned about conservative Christian therapists’ rights, he doesn’t seem so concerned with what happens to their patients. Haslam has been a regular, sizable donor to Nashville-based Mercy Ministries (now Mercy Multiplied) over the years.  As this paper has reported in the past and as Slate detailed exhaustively two weeks ago, the organization’s treatment centers do not even require its counselors to be licensed mental health practitioners, and they possibly promote belief in demonic possession as a source of mental illness and addiction, and reputedly utilize the widely discredited recovered-memory therapy.

But as this administration has shown time and again, the poor don’t matter, women don’t matter, and victims don’t matter, even at the cost of a loss of federal funds or tax revenue, even at the cost of saving the governor’s own reputation. Enjoy your last day in Asia, Bill. Jetlag’s gonna be a bitch.

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

This article was originally published in New York Times, Women in the World and can be viewed here.


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.

Read the full story at Slate.





“Mercy Multiplied: Did it exorcise vulnerable women?”

This article by Mark Woods was originally published by Christian Today and can be viewed here.

A Nashville-based ministry providing counselling therapy for troubled women has denied claims it treated them with exorcism and prayer and withheld medication from them.

An article for Slate claims to have identified a pattern of inappropriate and coercive treatment at Mercy Multiplied (formerly Mercy Ministries). In an in-depth examination of the organisation it instances residents such as ‘Hayley’, who was denied her anti-depressants and told prayer was a better way of managing her panic attacks.

The article draws on testimonies from 14 former residents and five families, who said Mercy’s programme manipulates residents into following a prescriptive counselling programme and that staff lack formal clinical training. Parents allege their daughters have falsely accused them of abuse under the guidance of Mercy counsellors who told them God had revealed past abusive events.

While it refused to discuss individual cases or respond directly to the article, Mercy did deny the women’s accounts of their treatment there.

Mercy has high-profile support from sports stars, entertainers and evangelist Joyce Meyer, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause.

The article also profiles Mercy Multiplied’s founder Nancy Alcorn and claims to identify inconsistencies in how she talks about demons and spiritual warfare. The organisation’s website says it “does not perform or endorse exorcisms” but Slate found a speech from 2008 in which Alcorn said Mercy dealt with “areas of demonic oppression”.

She said: “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.”

The article claims that “Mercy illustrates what happens when a hard-line, religiously oriented organisation inserts itself into a gaping hole in the United States’ mental heath system”.

Blogger Warren Throckmorton, a professor of psychology and a past-president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, said of Slate’s claims: “If the reports are true, then Mercy Multiplied should be shut down.” He suggested some of its practices appeared to be similar to “demon trials” practised at Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, in which mental illness was seen as a sign of demonic oppression.

Throckmorton questioned Mercy Multiplied about Slate’s allegations. While its spokeswoman Jackie Quinn said it would not respond to the article, she confirmed that all residents went through its ‘seven-step model’ of therapy. However, she denied counsellors ever used “restored memory therapy” or anything similar. She also said that while a resident might find they no longer needed medication as they progressed through their therapies, “this is something she would handle with the outside physician she sees and not determined by Mercy staff”.

Mercy’s CEO, Christy Singleton, told Throckmorton that Alcorn’s comments about demons reflected her charismatic Christian background. Of the sermon quoted by Slate, she said: “Certainly, in a charismatic church, you would expect to hear the term ‘demon’ or ‘demons’ to reference the evil Christians are to reject. In this video, Nancy was addressing a charismatic congregation and speaking about spiritual issues. That being said, Nancy’s statements are not incompatible with our stance regarding medication, nor has Nancy ever been against medication when medication is warranted.”

So is Mercy Ministries a flawed organisation that does more harm than good, as the Slate enquiry implies, or is it the victim of a clash of cultures between a particular type of Christian counselling and a secular worldview? Either way, its credibility has taken a severe hit during the last week. How it responds will be crucial to its future.

“Q & A With Jackie Quinn, Director of Communications at Mercy Multiplied”

This article by Warren Throckmorton was originally published on Patheos and can be viewed here.

Last Sunday, Jennifer Miller’s article posted on Slate.com about Nashville-based ministry Mercy Multiplied raised concerns about religiously based residential treatment for women. Miller interviewed several former residents who told troubling stories about their time in one Mercy’s four residential facilities. Specifically, the former residents said they were discouraged from taking medication for mental illness, and said the program encouraged the removal of demons as a means of ridding residents of their emotional pain and problems. Calling themselves survivors, they said they were harmed by their time in the ministry.

To find out more about Mercy’s point of view, I contacted Jackie Quinn who is Director of Communications at Mercy Multiplied. The following is a Q&A with Quinn (one question also has a response from CEO Christy Singleton) which covers some of the key concerns raised by the Slate article (my questions are in bold print, following by Quinn’s replies).

Throckmorton: Do you have a direct response to the Slate article?

Quinn: Mercy is not responding to the Slate article.

Are Mercy’s counselors licensed by the state?

Counselors are not required to be licensed by the state; however, about half are licensed or pursuing licensure. Here are the credentials for counselors as found on our website under Program FAQs:

Each counselor at Mercy is required to hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in social work, psychology, counseling or a related field. 80% of our counselors have master’s degrees.

What kind of graduate degrees are held by your counselors? Are they in counseling or ministry or both?

(In response, Quinn gave me a list of degrees held by 15 counselors. In summary, five have MA or MS degrees in counseling, with two having a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. The remaining master’s degree titles are social work (MSW), clinical mental health counseling, education with a concentration in clinical counseling, human services counseling, counseling and human services, professional counseling and family ministry.)

Do all girls go through Nancy Alcorn’s 7 step model?

As stated on our website under Program FAQs, “Trained counselors lead residents through the program curriculum,” Choices That Bring Change, so yes, all resident go through this curriculum (below is the full excerpt from our website):

Our Christian-based program curriculum, “Choices That Bring Change,” is the result of our three decades of ministering to girls in crisis and combines biblical principles of healing and unconditional love with best-practice clinical interventions, as outlined in Ditch the Baggage by Nancy Alcorn.

Trained counselors lead residents through the program curriculum, helping them explore issues of faith, forgiveness, family, overcoming abuse and past hurts, and general life principles. In addition to the curriculum, program resources feature internationally acclaimed teachers such as Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Joyce Meyer, Dave Ramsey, Andy Stanley and Charlotte Gambill. Residents participate in both individual and group counseling on a weekly basis.

Are girls ever asked to let Jesus reveal a past trauma?

Our counseling procedures do not permit the use of restored memory therapy or other imagery techniques designed to evoke memories.

Let me be more specific. Do counselors ever indicate to girls that Jesus has revealed a past trauma to either the girl or the counselor? This could be theophostic type counseling or some similar approach.

Mercy counselors do not use theophostic counseling or restored memory therapy or any technique like you are describing in your question.

What is Mercy’s position regarding the use of medication to treat mental and emotional problems.? Is medication discouraged for girls who are depressed or anxious?

Regarding medication from the website under program FAQs:

Although we are not a medical facility, some of the young women who enter our program have medical issues that need to be managed. To that end, our homes employ medical staff, and we provide adequate medical care for residents – including care from outside professionals who are called upon to help on a regular basis, as there is not a physician on staff.

Mercy does not discourage the use of medication. In fact, Mercy values the role medical intervention and pharmaceuticals have in helping young women struggling with depression, anxiety and other psychiatric conditions. Mercy staff follow directions from outside physicians with regard to medication as it is not our place to make medication determinations. The overwhelming majority of our residents are on some kind of medication during their stay at Mercy some of which they have in place before coming and some of which is prescribed after they come into the program. As is common in therapy and counseling, when a young women progresses through processing pasts hurts and trauma, she may find that certain medications do not seem to be needed anymore. However, this is something she would handle with the outside physician she sees and not determined by Mercy staff.

About medication, is this a change in policy or belief since the 2008 video of Nancy Alcorn (see video below) saying that you don’t medicate demons?

The belief about medication does not reflect a change in policy or belief. Mercy has always had that stance and belief.

Can you help me reconcile your statement about medication and the sermon in 2008 where Nancy Alcorn says “Jesus did not say to medicate a demon.”

I was not working at Mercy in 2008, so I checked with Mercy’s Executive Director, Christy Singleton, who was working here, for a response. Here is her response:

As you likely have discovered in your research, Nancy is from a Charismatic background, and the video you reference from 2008 was filmed during a worship service in which Nancy was speaking to a Charismatic congregation. Ever since Jesus taught his disciples to overcome the evil of the world, often referenced as “demons” or “demonic forces” in English translations of the Bible, Christians from many traditions have been rejecting evil, praying against evil forces, praying against the devil, and asking God to relieve them from oppression of demonic forces, or demons. Mercy follows in this same Christian tradition of rejecting all forms of spiritual darkness. (This is not just a Charismatic stance; witness any Methodist confirmation or baptism and attend to the liturgy.) Certainly, in a Charismatic church, you would expect to hear the term “demon” or “demons” to reference the evil Christians are to reject. In this video, Nancy was addressing a Charismatic congregation and speaking about spiritual issues. That being said, Nancy’s statements are not incompatible with our stance regarding medication, nor has Nancy ever been against medication when medication is warranted.

Simply put, Mercy does not discourage the use of medication. In fact, Mercy values the role medical intervention and pharmaceuticals have in helping young women struggling with depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions. Mercy staff follow directions from outside physicians with regard to medication. In fact, the overwhelming majority of our residents are on some kind of medication during their stay at Mercy; sometimes the medication was in place before attending our program, and sometimes the medication is prescribed after they come into the program. In many situations young women graduate from our program still on medication. It is important to note that every case is different. As is common in therapy and counseling, when a young woman progresses through processing pasts hurts and trauma, she may find that certain medications do not seem to be needed anymore. However, this is something she would handle with her physician and is not determined by Mercy staff.

The clip of Nancy Alcorn talking about removing demons and not medicating them is below and full sermon is also embedded below.

Full sermon:

“The Disturbing Truth About Mercy Multiplied, a Christian Counseling Center”

This article by Hemant Mehta was originally published by Patheos and can be viewed here.

shutterstock_263091254Jennifer Miller has a frightening story at Slate about Mercy Ministries (now known as Mercy Multiplied), a free-to-attend, faith-based organization dedicated to helping women deal with problems including eating disorders, addictions, and sexual abuse.

That sounds great, and you can see why it’s a multi-million dollar organization. However, their on-the-fly approach that substitutes God for effective treatment has arguably done more harm than good. This is a place, after all, that promotes faith-healing and hires staffers who don’t necessarily have any formal clinical training.

Here’s just one example of a patient who was negatively affected by the group’s “care”:

Over her seven months at Mercy, Hayley says staff often denied her requests for Xanax, instead emphasizing prayer as a better way to treat the panic attacks. She also says she was punished with extra reading and chores for infractions as minor as sharing her CD player. When her brother died unexpectedly a month into her stay, Mercy didn’t bring in the certified grief counselor that her parents had requested, she says. According to Hayley, Mercy staff unswervingly held her and others to a one-size-fits-all counseling curriculum. Six years after leaving Mercy, Hayley continues to wrestle with mental illness.

In a larger sense, Mercy illustrates what happens when a hard-line, religiously oriented organization inserts itself into a gaping hole in the United States’ mental heath system. Because organizations like Mercy are barely subject to government oversight, it’s likely not an anomaly.

What’s striking as you read the story is the amount of deception on the part of Mercy to trick potential patients into believing they know what they’re doing. They use the Bible as cover for their ignorance — and it’s the patients who suffer.

And they get away with it, because some people are so blinded by their faith that they’ll support anyone who claims to work in the name of Jesus.

“Unregulated Christian mental health facilities ‘treat’ ill women with a toxic mix of prayer and victim blaming”

This article by Bethania Palma Markus was originally published by Raw Story and can be viewed here.

Depressed young woman (Shutterstock)The United States has a shameful hole in treating mental illness. USA Today cites a 2012 report that shows a whopping 40 percent of adults with severe mental health problems, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder got no treatment in the previous year.

According to Slate, this gap in American health care has created an opportunity for unregulated religious facilities posing as mental health clinics to take a dangerous role. Slate’s Jennifer Miller interviewed 14 former staffers, ex-clients and families for Nashville-based Mercy Ministries — recently renamed Mercy Multiplied.

The charity serves as an in-patient setting for exclusively female clients, aged 13 to 28. An insight into the philosophy behind the program can perhaps be gleaned from a speech by its founder, Nancy Alcorn, who in 2008 said,

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.

One former patient, Hayley Baker, suffered from a plethora of diagnoses, including major depression and an eating disorder. She also suffered a history of child abuse when she entered a Mercy facility in 2009.

Baker says she was denied prescription Xanax by staffers while suffering nighttime panic attacks, and instead given a sheet of paper saying, “Peaceful Sleep,” bearing a line from the book of Psalms: “He grants sleep to those he loves.”

Baker, like other patients, was told prayer could cure her problems. In fact, staffers approached all problems with this one-size-fits-all religious approach. When one facility experienced an outbreak of mononucleosis, residents were made to walk through the halls and call for banishing of the evil spirits that were causing it.

Baker, who was molested as a little girl, said part of the treatment she was expected to perform was to imagine Jesus being present during a traumatic event in her past and absolving her of guilt associated with it.

I couldn’t make up Jesus saying something to me,” Hayley told Slate. “I didn’t blame myself for the abuse.

That answer wasn’t good enough, for the Mercy counselor who pressed her to continue, regardless of her protests.

Another woman, identified as “Lily,” was anorexic and at 23 entered a Mercy facility weighing in at a mere 80 pounds. Her treatment? Hands were laid on her as staffers prayed over her. She says she went along with the program because she began to feel brainwashed. When she decided she wanted to go home, she said she felt pressured to stay.

They prayed over me and put hands on me,” she says. “They made me feel like this was my only chance to live and if I left [early] there would be no more chances… And I thought maybe I’m the weird one for not having this open heart.

A former counselor called the program abusive, and said its expectation that women “graduate” in a certain amount of time is a form of victim blaming.

Taking women who have very severe mental health issues and saying they’re not choosing freedom when they’re not ‘healed’ in a certain period of time—it puts the problem back on the girls,” the counselor told Slate. “And they’re already really broken and hurting.

Another troubling pattern is that in which some clients accuse falsely family members of horrific abuse — which is associated with a discredited and dangerous treatment of so-called repressed memories that can only be accessed through hypnosis.

At least nine families told Miller their daughters entered the program and come out accusing family members of horrifying sexual abuse. Seven of the nine families have lost contact with the women.

The parents of a woman named Ellen told Slate that while at Mercy, Ellen was encouraged to “empty herself” before the Holy Spirit, and “‘Whatever the Spirit told us, that’s what happened… She called this event her ‘deliverance.‘” From these sessions, Ellen emerged with a stories of sex trafficking and being raped by her father. She has cut off all contact with her parents.

Slate reports that at least two of the three adult facilities run by Mercy in the U.S. are not licensed in their respective states of Louisiana and Missouri.

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