“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.

(YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

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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