In April 2012, we published a piece exploring the question “Is Mercy Ministries a cult?” In that piece, we drew the reader’s attention to comments made in the media by Dr Raphael Aron, director of Cult Counselling Australia  .
We now have a copy of Mr Aron’s book “Cults, Terror and Mind Control”, which discusses Mercy Ministries in the context of the particular vulnerability of the mentally ill people coerced by cult environments, and issues of coercion and unethical practice raised by Rosanna Capolingua of the Australian Medical Association. Whilst she addresses issues with Mercy Ministries Australia, the issues she addresses such as supervised doctors visits exist across all Mercy Ministries homes around the world.
This book is available for purchase on Amazon.
Although studies show that the majority of people being drawn into cults or terrorist organisations do not suffer from a mental illness, there are exceptions. The possibility of mentally disturbed people being attracted to a cult or terrorist organisation represents an added nightmare for families and friends. Like the child who has become ensnared in a cult, the mentally ill person is often powerless to resist the overwhelming pressure of the group.
For these people, the issue is significant as these groups have the potential to become a haven for the mentally ill and the emotionally unstable. Health professionals as well as families who have had to deal with mentally disturbed individuals are aware of the fact that mental illness can be accompanied by delusions of a religious or spiritual nature…
…Throughout the world there has been a trend towards not institutionalizing of mental health sufferers and an attempt on the part of authorities to reintegrate these people into the community. Invariably, these changes have created a far greater level of exposure to the deceptive practices of individuals and groups who choose to take advantage of people suffering from a mental illness.
In the attempts of these people to make sense of their lives, the attractiveness of a cult can be magnified. Where independent living can be a day-to-day struggle, the offer for accommodation, food and comfort can be most inviting. If, in addition, a cult is able to offer counselling and support, the picture is complete.
These concerns were highlighted after considerable media exposure regarding an Australian organization called Mercy Ministries in March 2008. On its website, Mercy Ministries claimed to treat women from the age of sixteen to twenty-eight by “providing homes and care for young women suffering the effects of eating disorders, self-harm, abuse, depression, unplanned pregnancies and other life controlling issues“. But three former patients told an Australian newspaper that the programs involved “emotionally cruel and medically unproven techniques“, such as exorcisms and “seperation contracts” between friends. Girls reportedly left the Mercy center suicidal after being told they were possessed by demons.
Former residents said no medical or psychological services were provided, just an occasional, monitored trip to a doctor, where the consultation took place in the presence of a Mercy Ministries staff member or volunteer. Patients of Mercy Ministries claimed that the program focused on prayer, Christian counseling, and expelling demons from in and around the young women, who say they begged the organization to let them get medical help for the conditions they were suffering, which included bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and anorexia. These requests were denied.
In relation to the accompaniment by Mercy Ministries staff on doctor’s visits, the president and chair of the Australian Medical Association’s ethics committee, Rosanna Capolingua, said patients must be able to talk freely to their doctor about how they are feeling, without the potential influence of a third party.
“And even if the doctor did ask the patient whether they had consented (to the presence of a third party), the patient may not be able to answer. They are already vulnerable, they are coming in potentially under duress and they have another layer of fear on board…they might not have the courage to answer.”
In response to the complaints of former residents, Mercy Ministries executive manager of programs Judy Watson said that staff address the issues that the residents face from a holistic client-focused approach: physical, mental, emotional. The program is voluntary and all aspects are explained comprehensively to the residents and no force isused.
While there are those who argue that the environment provided by such organizations may be preferable to the absence of any care at all, the reality is that for some members who don’t conform with the strict rules of these programs, such comforts are often short-lived.
After eight months at a “medical” facility run by a fundamentalist church, one woman was thrown out becuase “she didn’t want to get better”. With no place to go and her hopes for recovery completely dashed, she begged for compassion but received none. She spent the last night sleeping on the floor and was forbidden to talk to any other patients. She wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye.
In relation to cults, the anguish of families whose loved ones have joined these groups is exacerbated by their awareness of the mental health issues of the person. Many cults take an anti-medication stance and the denial of medication to the member can serve to increase the family’s anxiety. The problem is further magnified by the person’s isolation from family, medical practitioners, and mental health professionals.
Although the insular nature of cults and the insistence that any psychological or emotional problems be dealt with “in house” are potentially dangerous for any cult member, the situation of the mentally ill is even more serious. Some cults brand all form of psychological or psychiatric intervention as evil.