“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.

Exorcism

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.”

Written By Mercy Survivors

Support for survivors of Mercy Ministries

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