This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and can be viewed here.
What is the appropriate role for Satan in the delivery of mental health services? A silly question, you may think, in the 21st century. But the stories of young women struggling with conditions such as anorexia and drug addiction who have been drawn to Mercy Ministries show it is not silly at all. As the Herald has revealed, Mercy’s treatment – if that is the correct term – for a range of common but nonetheless dangerous psychiatric disorders appears to be an intense, cloistered, and cult-like course of religious indoctrination, administered by people many of whom are being trained for the ministry, not in medicine or psychiatry. That explains why exorcism – part of the church’s spiritual armoury against Satan – is used as a treatment for what specialists would see as symptoms of mental illness.
People should be free to believe in whatever they like, of course, and some Mercy patients may indeed have found its spiritual offerings helpful in dealing with mental illness. But a wide gulf separates religion and psychiatry. In its publicity, Mercy Ministries appears to offer mental health services. What kind of mental health institution expels unruly patients – as Mercy Ministries has – who are then left to struggle unaided with symptoms that have been aggravated by the experience? An organisation holding itself out as providing mental health services should be subject to rigorous medical standards, and employ qualified staff for accredited programs of treatment.
Some of the women the Herald spoke to were encouraged to divert their Centrelink payments to Mercy Ministries. Others say they were encouraged to move to disability benefits so the organisation could then claim carer’s benefit for them, as well as most of their pension. Given the questions surrounding the performance and methods of Mercy Ministries, the Federal Government is right to investigate any suggestion that Centrelink may have somehow assisted the organisation.
The broader issue raised by the Mercy Ministries story is: should vulnerable individuals be forced – by a lack of government services – into the arms of religious practitioners whose methods bear little relationship to modern psychiatry? Clearly not. Funding for mainstream mental health services should be enough to ensure they can meet demand.