“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.”

Mercy expectations

This is a recent piece by Mercy Survivor Kathryn who blogs at Comfortably Numb.

Some of it, I was prepared for…. Other things, not so much.

I knew it was going to be hard- I didn’t know it was going to be nearly impossible.

I knew they were going to be strict about nutrition- I didn’t know I’d be forced to swallow things I couldn’t stand. (Or that when I gagged on them, I’d be told I wasn’t “allowed” to throw up.)

I knew that there was going to be lots of church and spiritual training- I wasn’t prepared to get in trouble for simple things like sitting down during worship, not taking enough notes, or thanking a pastor after a sermon.

I was prepared to have stern rules for going to the mall- I was not prepared to get in trouble because I was 11¢ short for my shampoo, so the cashier gave me a quarter and that meant my change was off.

I’ve always known it’s important to stay clean- I never dreamt I’d get in trouble for going a single day without a shower.

I was aware that there was a fitness routine- I was not aware that I’d be disciplined for not working out enough on my own, outside of our daily trip to the local YMCA, in the time that I was supposed to be doing counselling assignments.

I knew that I’d have to learn to pray through anxiety and panic attacks- I didn’t know I’d be forced to stand up and read “God’s Creative Power” out loud (while I couldn’t breathe?) all the while being told that I was faking it.

I knew that there were precise bed times and times to get up at- I didn’t know that I’d get in trouble for falling asleep at any other time- even though I couldn’t help it because it was the meds making it hard to stay awake, and they wouldn’t let me reduce them without a change in prescription, but they wouldn’t let me see a doctor to get that change in prescription.

I was prepared for lots of counselling and hard work- I was completely unaware that the work I needed to do would be to read countless Joyce Meyer books and write reflections on them. Nor was I prepared to be told that I simply couldn’t move forward anymore unless I accepted that God loved me. (Have I heard it? Yes. Does my brain believe it? Yes. Had that knowledge transferred to my heart yet? No, but I didn’t know how to make that happen.)

I knew that they would want me to hear God’s voice, and speak back to Him in tongues- I was unprepared for my counselor to tell me that I was at a standstill, and unless I could hear Him audibly speaking to me, I couldn’t keep going.

I was aware that some of the things I’d done were unbelievable- I was not prepared to have the staff there second guess me and tell me they didn’t believe the truth.

I had razor blades embedded in my arm, and despite the fact that one was close enough to the surface to feel it, despite the fact that I had a letter from my GP (so that I could get through airport security) I was told that was simply not possible.

I thought that I was going to Mercy Ministries to be healed- I did not know that was supposed to happen by ignoring the physical doctors and just praying the bad things would go away.

I am from Canada and was at Mercy Ministries St. Louis. When I tried to enter the US, I had problems at the border. The way that I was finally allowed in, was complicated. If I left the United States, it would be difficult, if not impossible for me to get back in again. So, I knew that when all the other girls were travelling home for Christmas, I wouldn’t be able to go. I was told, by Mercy Ministries, that they would arrange for a host family that I could stay with over the holidays. As Christmas got closer, I was told that I couldn’t stay at Mercy Ministries, because it would be closing for the holidays, but that they didn’t trust me enough to let me stay with a host family either.

To put it bluntly- I was prepared for lots of church, spirituality and faith to be addressed- but I thought it would be in addition to, not instead of receiving professional medical help for my mental illness(es)- mental illness which the staff at Mercy Ministries were not qualified, nor prepared to deal with.

They should not be taking in these girls who have real issues and need real help and promising them things that they can’t deliver. It’s not fair, it’s not ethical, and it shouldn’t even be legal- yet somehow, it’s still happening.

Not a medical facility

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her personal blog, External Mercy, and can be viewed here.

Not a medical facilityI’m going to take a bit a break from the manual review for this post.  The holidays are impossible to get away from, and it got me thinking about how Mercy Multiplied handled the Christmas holidays.  Because Mercy Multiplied is not an actual treatment facility, residential facility, medical facility, anything facility, they simply close down for two weeks for the winter holidays.  Anybody who isn’t familiar with quality treatment programs might think that this is normal, but it’s definitely not.  I’m been in multiple different treatment centers over the holidays various different years and while there were definitely more “passes” (treatment team permission to leave the facility to visit with family or friends), they never just shut down.  Think about it…hospitals don’t shut down.  They might discharge anybody and everybody they can, but when illness is so extreme to need 24-7 round the clock care and supervision, the assumption is that there are those who aren’t well enough to leave for two weeks.

One of the excuses reasons that Mercy Multiplied would most likely offer in response to this is that they are “not a medical facility.”  Mercy Multiplied is very careful (and has become increasingly more careful) in the words they officially use to describe their program.  I’m all about accuracy in description and reporting, but usually the purpose of this is to make sure that individuals are well-informed about a program and able to make a decision as to whether the program will be a good fit for their needs and beneficial for them.

Mercy Multiplied seems different than other quality programs (and even some non-quality programs) because while they are very careful to keep from using phrases such as “treatment facility” or “medical facility,” they are also simultaneously reaching out to specific populations of young women who are seeking treatment for various different reasons that require treatment or medical monitoring.  This leads me to believe that the care in their language and descriptions has much more to do with possible legal issues (because as we know from the manual’s review they definitely recommend getting well-qualified legal advice) than it does to making sure they are serving the right clientele and able to meet the needs of their residents.  Seems more like they’re following the advice of their lawyers to protect their organization at the cost of appropriate care for those they are claiming to help.  That’s just my take on it, though.

Think about it…have you ever tried going to a podiatrist for your toothache?  No, because you know that if you do they’ll turn you away and send you to a dentist.  They know  they are not qualified to care for you teeth.  Now they might tell you that taking care of your feet will help your teeth (it’s all part of the same body afterall), but they can’t tell you that they’ll take care of your teeth.  This is good, because you don’t want a foot doctor caring for your teeth anymore than you want a dentist doing your foot surgery.  You want a medical professional that is trained, certified, and experienced with the problem for which you are seeking help.  In other words, you want a dentist.  Mercy Multiplied claims that they are able to care for young women with mental illnesses, eating disorders, past abuse, self-harm, etc., but they aren’t actually qualified to do so.  Like they say, they’re not a medical facility.

I wouldn’t have a problem with this if they were to be responsible, make clear that they only offer basic prayer ministry from laypersons, and send applicants that need treatment to actual treatment facilities.  After all, when’s the last time you saw a podiatrist telling success stories about someone who needed a root canal? Eating disorders are a prime example.  While classified as a mental illness, eating disorders have significant medical and nutritional issues that must also be addressed in fact anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder (Arcelus, Mitchell, Wales, & Nielsen, 2011).  But does Mercy Multiplied tell those applying that they are not qualified to treat eating disorders?  On the contrary, they actively promote the idea that they treat eating disorders.  I think when it comes to eating disorders, they are deceptive and medically negligent—and the same goes for other disorders and struggles.  Mercy Multiplied should not get to specify that they are NOT a medical facility while simultaneously acting as if they were. But that’s what Mercy Multiplied does.

I hear the comeback of course, you have to be “medically stable” in order to be accepted into the program.  An MD has to sign off on that, but there are several issues with that.

  1. The doctor signing off on a future resident’s medical stability does NOT have to be trained, certified, or even knowledgeable with regard to psychiatric diagnoses and their effects on medical stability.  (For those of you who have been spared the experience, most doctors are horrifically unknowledgeable about eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or trauma issues.  The last doctor that I saw asked why I was on Prozac.   When I told him it was for depression his response was “You don’t look depressed.”  I guess he wasn’t expecting me to be smiling?)
  2. Medical stability is often not well-defined, particularly for psychological disorders. Plus once a resident is in the program, is it simply assumed that they will maintain their medical stability?  (Maybe it’s changed since then, but I was there with an eating disorder for 9 months, and I don’t remember ever getting my blood pressure taken. And there was definitely not anyone there qualified to evaluate my state of mind or psychological distress levels.
  3. Even programs that are medical facilities often require medical stability.  (For instance, residential treatment centers for psychiatric issues require medical stability as do psychiatric hospitals that are not part of a medical hospital.  Not needing immediate medical care is not the same as not needing treatment or care whatsoever.)

If Mercy Multiplied is truly following their “not a medical facility” and not “treatment” line of reasoning, why aren’t they up-front about their lack of qualifications, denial of evidence-based care, and lack of validated proof of their claimed success rates? If the podiatrist treating your dental problems failed to make that sort of information clear, would you be okay with it?

Here’s the thing Mercy Multiplied —you don’t get to have it both ways: You don’t get to claim you’re not a treatment facility but promote yourselves as caring for individuals who need a treatment facility.  If you want to take your brand of ministry and spread it to the ends of the earth, fine, but you don’t get to lead people to think that it’s appropriate for those who need a treatment facility.

I wouldn’t have any problem with Mercy Multiplied saying that they’re a place where someone can come and spend time going to church, watching sermons, doing chores, listening to Joyce Meyer, and meeting with a prayer counselor–at least that description is somewhat accurate.

For all their talk of authenticity when it comes to finances, they are quite the opposite when it comes to information about the actual program.  They may have consulted a lawyer when putting together their promotional materials, but I don’t think they consulted a doctor.  But that’s okay right?  I mean, what matters is the organization and its reputation right?  It’s not like someone’s life is at stake…oh, wait…it is.

Let’s look at how the medically stable process went down in my case.  I was struggling with an eating disorder and other various self-destructive behaviors.  I saw a doctor that I’d never seen before who had no experience with any of these things.  That’s right, any old doctor would have done as long as there was a signature.  If I remember correctly the doctor that I saw was actually an orthopedic specialist because I didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit so a friend of a friend got me in.  The doctor was required to sign off on a “medically stable” weight for me.  He put down the weight that I was because I was obviously “fine” if I was there seeing him.  I presented Mercy Multiplied as a treatment facility because that’s what I thought it was—after all, Mercy Multiplied knew what my issues and diagnoses were, and they accepted me, so I assumed they must be able to help me.

Mercy Multiplied themselves often shares the dire nature of a young women’s plight prior to coming to Mercy Multiplied in their success stories and information about the program.  They’ve taken in individuals from across the world that didn’t even have a doctor’s permission to fly due to their medically precarious state.  They’ve required individuals to remain unhospitalized while awaiting placement with Mercy Multiplied despite immediate medical and safety concerns that recommended hospitalization.  This is not just irresponsible, it’s dangerous and putting the lives of young women in jeopardy.  But they apparently can get away with this because they are “not a medical facility.”

After my time at Mercy Multiplied, I remember my treatment team and I seeking a residential or inpatient facility that would accept me because I had deteriorated far beyond the realm of outpatient care.  I remember being frustrated that there were facilities that refused to take me simply because of various diagnoses.  Now, while I still find the lack of facilities that specialize in certain various issues, there was wisdom in that.  At least they weren’t telling me that they could help me and take me in knowing that they couldn’t.  Mercy Multiplied didn’t offer me that kind of respect.  And as horrible as it would be for a facility to purport to be able to help someone and realize a bit into it that it was outside their realm of experience and then refer the patient out to appropriate care, Mercy Multiplied didn’t even do that.  Instead when Mercy Multiplied is faced with an individual who is failing to make “progress” in the program, the individual is blamed for not working the program, trying hard enough, submitting enough, or believing enough. Mercy Multiplied, their staff, and their program get immunity from any responsibility and don’t have to be accountable for the damage they are doing.

Think about being desperate for help, being evaluated by staff and doctors, being told you’re a good candidate, and being accepted into a program that doesn’t have the ability to help you.  Now imagine you’re in the program and finding the program is not helping you (surprise, surprise), but you’re told that it’s your fault the program is not helping even though they never had the ability to help in the first place.  This is the situation that many residents and former residents have found themselves up against at Mercy Multiplied.

And people give Mercy Multiplied a pass because they say they’re “not a medical facility.”  I wonder if people would have the same response if a podiatrist advertised for and knowingly accepted patients, specifically with dental issues, telling stories of a wildly successful cure?  Or maybe it’s only okay if you call it a ministry.

Behind the signatures: Mercy Ministries petition

This piece by Mercy Survivor Christan was originally published on her personal blog, Pretty Pink Koolaid, and can be viewed here.

Why are individuals signing a petition to have Mercy Ministries of America investigated by the Attorney General?  Let’s look at some individuals who are supporting this measure:

Gerry

I have spent years trying to get rid of “Demons” without medication because of Mercy Ministries.  With medication, I have no, “Spirit of Suicide, Spirit, Anxious spirits or of self destruction or mutilation”.  Now that I have completely disassociated myself from them, I live a happy, somewhat normal, life without the fear of going to hell for saying what I think about them.

Lisa

I am a Mercy Survivor!

Christan

I was greatly damaged by Mercy Ministries of America and so was my family.  My counselor at Mercy Ministries didn’t even have her bachelors in Psychology and used “recovered memory” therapy to plant false memories.  I was then encouraged to separate from my family and didn’t see them for almost 3 years due to the mind control I was under.  I’m still recovering from my time there…its been over 10 years now.

Kathy

My daughter attended Mercy Ministries and has cut off all contact with our family and her friends.

Sherry

We lost our daughter to this program.

Shawn

These young women need and deserve real treatment, not what amounts to abuse.

Amanda

My cousin’s life was ruined because of Mercy Ministries.

Joan

Our daughter got caught up in this too.  The counselor ruined her life.  At 22 she is suddenly on disability and 7 licensees ‘treat’ her.  She can no longer play piano, perform in recitals or work; she is too busy in P.T. with a specialist.  MERCY MINISTRIES IS A FRAUD!

Cindy

My husband and I are both Christians and, as you can image, this greatly pains us to speak out against a “Christian” organization. However, after 12 years of dealing with Mercy Ministries, we have come to the understanding that they are not what they claim to be. We lost our daughter for 3 years because of this program. It’s taken her 12 long years of therapy to break free from Mercy Ministries mind control. We are in touch with parents who also have lost their daughters. Please help us stop this damaging program that disguises itself as “Christian.”

Sarah

I spent a year at the now-defunct Sydney facility here in Australia, and since then I have come into contact with dozens of former Mercy clients in the US who have had the same and worse experiences as me.  This issue did not begin and end with the Australian homes as Nancy Alcorn would have you believe.  Those homes were the fruit of an ultimately very sick tree.

I am grieved every time I hear from another Mercy Survivor in the US, another person who has gone through additional and unnecessary suffering and trauma, and has been sold a pipe dream, deceived as to the nature of the program and services, then damned to hell when they do not produce the results that make Mercy look successful.

I strongly and passionately urge the Attorney Generals in each of the four US states in which Mercy Ministries operates to take the time to seriously look into this matter and respond appropriately.

Sandra

I am signing to stop criminal and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill.

I was greatly damaged by Mercy Ministries of America and so was my family.  My counselor at Mercy Ministries didn’t even have her bachelors in Psychology and used “recovered memory” therapy to plant false memories.  I was then encouraged to separate from my family and didn’t see them for almost 3 years due to the mind control I was under.  I’m still recovering from my time there…its been over 10 years now.

John

I’ve seen the damage Mercy Ministries has done to friends of mine.  I don’t want to see it happen again.

Roma

Mental health consumers are being harmed by fraudulent therapy and misdirected away from appropriate treatments and therapies which would be of benefit to them. This type of psycho junk therapy that the Mercy Ministries Survivors have endured is harmful to the patients and must be stopped. I am a Canadian survivor of this psycho fraud. If I had been protected from this fraudulent junk therapy and received proper treatment instead I would have been spared years of mental and physical torture and recovered. No one ever recovers with or from this junk therapy; the junk therapy only adds injury to the illness.

Jessica

I was at Mercy Ministries in 2010. They kicked me out of the program because I wasn’t moving through the program fast enough. They make girls and women believe it’s there only hope to get help or they will die. It has taken me 4 years to undo some of the damage they have caused me mentally and psychologically. I still have a long way to go but I am starting to realize I can make it. What this program does is miss leading and wrong. They claim to save young women, however, I know one young lady who died 7 months ago who graduated from there program who they claimed was healed. And another young lady who is fighting for her life. Please stop and ask your self would you want or let your daughter to go to a place like this. Mercy would be a good place if things changed in certain areas.

Gladden

Bogus, non-science-based ‘treatment’ of distressed persons has done tremendous damage over the last two decades. Time to cease and desist… and learn what REALLY helps.

Heidi

It has affected members of my family greatly.  They lost their daughter due to Mercy Ministries for a period of time and will never be the same.  Mercy Ministries is very destructive.

Amy

I went through similar things at Castlewood Treatment Center. My family was nearly destroyed.

Abigail

It took me 9 years to come to terms with what happened to me at Mercy Ministries.  I am finally speaking up.  Signed and shared!

Stephanie

I lost my sister and best friend to Mercy Ministries. They were rude, demeaning, exclusive, and posted lies about my family on the internet. They plastered her photo on the site and a false testimony as a way for people to see how their donations helped her find the love of God. This place is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Let’s bring them into the light. They’ve caused so much pain and are doing their best to cover it up.

Rene

Because a very dear friend of mine has been deprived of a relationship with her only daughter because of this “ministry” due to false allegations.

Ruth

We know a family whose daughter was treated through Mercy Ministries, and it nearly destroyed their family and certainly created many more issues for this young woman.  While I strongly believe in the importance of the spiritual in each person’s life, mental illness very frequently has a chemical basis that needs to be treated.  Mercy Ministries seems to be uneducated in this in their assuming there is always and only a spiritual issue to the women’s problems.  This causes them to be unequipped to effectively treat these women.  Due to these women’s issues, they are vulnerable and can become trapped in the Mercy Ministries program without being able to escape and get the medical help they so desperately need.

Meredith

I have lost my sister to Mercy Ministries.  She has completely disowned her family and has threatened a restraining order.

Greg

Dear friends had their lives ripped open and are just now healing and being restored to their daughter.

Susanne

Why would this not be important to me? I have daughters and nieces.. I care about young people and do not want to see estranged families for no reason when loving families are what these young people need most. I do not want to see necessary medications being withheld. This organization need to be investigated. That is why.

Lori

My friend has left her family for several years now after receiving “treatment” at Mercy Ministries.

Cheri

I went to mercy and left after 3 weeks of hell. I was told day after day that I wasn’t healing fast enough and wasn’t believing in God enough and that was why I had a mental illness.

Barbara

I have friends who have been deeply hurt by Mercy Ministries.

Deanna

I know a family that has been adversely affected by Mercy Ministries.

Sherry J

A beautiful young woman and turned against everything she knew because of “false” memories. It is evil and could not be of the Lord. God does not divide families but brings healing.

Rebecca

We have friends who’s daughter entered Mercy Ministry for treatment at the same time as our daughter went another more professional route for an eating disorder. Our daughter is on her way to full health and loves us more than ever before while they have not seen there daughter for years. My heart breaks for them!! I truly believe that Mercy Ministries is causing damage…much damage. Please, at the very least, do due diligence and listen to those impacted.

Geoff

This issue is hurting good friends of mine…

Nancy

This issue has touched the lives of some good friends of ours. I don’t want any more families to go through what they did.To read more please visit the petition here.

Public, private and religious?

This piece by Mercy Survivor Britt was originally published on her personal blog, Hits and Near Misses, and can be viewed here.

Okay so many of you reading this may have experienced the joys and/or horrors of one or more of the following…

  • Public Mental Health Treatment Centres

  • Private Mental Health Treatment Centres
  • Religious Rehabilitation Centres

I guess today I thought it’d be a good idea to write about my experiences in all three and let you know that you’re not alone if you’ve felt alone, confused or abused in one of these situations.

My first encounter with any kind of inpatient treatment was in a religious rehabilitation centre named Mercy Ministries.  (If you have a nagging feeling that you’ve heard of them before, you probably have).

I was 16 and stayed there for 13 months.

Now due to the fact that I had no other inpatient experience, I didn’t find it odd at all that bible college students were handing out medications, the counsellors weren’t qualified, and I wasn’t actually receiving any of the proper treatment that I was entitled to.

I remember the aftermath of one incident that should’ve been dealt with in a confined medical setting, but instead was dealt with via prayer and separation. 
 I was feeling quite high during the afternoon, and towards the early hours of the evening, things had escalated and I was literally climbing walls, dissociating and starting arguments.  The next parts of the event are a blur, I know I found myself outside up near the gates, in the veggie patch and in a laundry space. 
When a staff member was alerted to my behaviour I was taken into the office and made to recite my Godly Beliefs.  (Here’s a run down on what they are).

Recently, I caught up with the member of staff that saw to me that night and reminded her of the incident.  She apologised.  Now, I don’t blame her at all for how she dealt with it.  That’s how she was trained.  She was young and probably had the best intentions.
  But my case wasn’t the only one.

I can recall times when epileptic fits were treated as demonic encounters, self harm was addressed with locking the girl alone in a room and even the simplest of medical issues were not able to be seen by a proper non-religious general practitioner.

I left Mercy Ministries when I was 17, over a year later, and not one bit better.  All I could hold on to was my Godly Beliefs booklet and what was left of my faith.

For a place that prides themselves on healing the broken, I came out shattered.



A few months later, I found myself in the private mental health system, suffering from severe depression, psychosis and anorexia nervosa.

I have been in and out of these facilities for the past seven years after Mercy Ministries.  It was here that I learnt how mental health issues should really be dealt with.  Real nurses, real doctors and real psychiatrists.  Everyone had qualifications, everyone has knowledge and everyone cares.

The only downside of the private mental health system is that not everyone can afford it.  Some facilities can escalate up to $1,000 a day.

But if one can’t afford that, has no cover or finds themselves in a sudden crisis, you’ll be taken in to the public mental health system.

This is where I found myself four weeks ago.  Alone and in a crisis.  Taken by professionals to a cold sterile environment with other people that were as sick or sicker than me. 
 Concrete walls and lino floors, mushy food and no knowledge of what was happening to me or what I could do other than my Statement of Rights that was handed to me at 4 in the morning. 
 Screaming filled the hallways, the beds were thin and cold and I had to beg for the right medication.  This was not a familiar environment for me and I didn’t like it.  Unfortunately, this is the only option for many.

I am thankful for my experiences as they have opened up my eyes to all sides of the system.

I know more needs to be done. More people need access to the private system and the care inside.  The public system needs continuity, facilities need to be upgraded and more communication is needed between staff and patients.  
And religious rehabilitation programs need to be regulated.

Mercy Ministries has since been shut down in Australia, but that’s not to say there aren’t others operating out there without licences and qualifications.  Mentally ill people are succumbing to the temptation of a free and God-filled environment, but instead being led to give up their medication and values, leaving alone and worse off than before.

Do something.

Why?

This piece by former Mercy Ministries staff member Sian was originally published on her personal blog, Wide Awake…, and can be viewed here.

This is a rewrite of a previous post that I have now deleted.  I will say this was not because it was untrue,  every word was true, but it was my experience and written from a place of hurt and anger.  Anyway…this is NOT about me.  I survived and I’m okay.  I’m doing this to protect the vulnerable that may end up damaged by Mercy Ministries.

I feel I need to explain a bit of why I went from promoting Mercy Ministries everywhere I went to now speaking out against them.

I started like many others.  I heard about a faith-based organisation that claimed to have an amazing success rate where everyone else seemed to be failing.  I remember being so excited to meet Nancy Alcorn, she was my hero.

I started working for Mercy Ministries several years ago and initially it was mostly positive.  I felt privileged to work for such a high profile organisation which was supported by many Christian ‘celebrities’.

The longer I was there, the more I felt uncomfortable about.  I tried to challenge and was told to keep quiet.  This is one of my biggest concerns about Mercy Ministries, there is no accountability and no one to challenge them.  They did not seem open to evaluation, almost like they were already perfect.  Staff members that tried to question methods were pretty much bullied out and I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about staff experience but this is something that I feel is an important indicator of potential problems.

There were other things:

  • Girls’ progress seemed to be judged on where they were deemed to be spiritually.  Ie, if they prayed in tongues, raised their hands in worship etc, rather than on how they were doing with the issue that brought them to Mercy Ministries in the first place.
  • The majority of staff were not qualified to work in mental health, and in addition, there was no training for staff new to the field.
  • Medication was administered by untrained staff who would refused medicine illegally and tell the girls to pray instead.  Those staff that were experienced were overlooked for those deemed more spiritual.
  • There were no policies in place for safeguarding the girls or dealing with disclosure of abuse . This is especially concerning given the that many of the girls had alleged abusers who were living with children in the family home.
  • Girls would leave the programme and have little support.  The transitional care programme was not in existence at the time and did not seem to be deemed important meaning girls would be left to struggle alone.  Girls would be told that they struggled because they were not using their ‘tools’ and the blame was placed on them.  These girls were still included in the success rate statistics and their testimonies would still be told as evidence of the great work done by Mercy Ministries.

I will say that in the home I worked in I saw no evidence of the abuse that has been reported in the other homes but there was definitely a similar attitude  that appears to be inherited from the top.

I hope this explains why I can no longer support Mercy Ministries.

Mercy Ministries counseling leads girls to believe they were abused, then uses their stories to make money

This piece by Mercy Survivor Christan tells it like it is, and updates us on her quest for access to her own records (previously covered here, here and here).  This piece was originally published on her personal blog and can be viewed at Pretty Pink Koolaid.

Let’s get RAW.

I have been requesting my personal records from the 9 months I spent Mercy Ministries since 2008.  Yes, you counted right…that’s five years of requests that have gone unanswered.  If you follow my blog, you will note that I requested my personal records again last week…this time emailing Nancy Alcorn (which I’ve done in the past) AND cc’ing every Mercy Ministries staff member I could obtain an email on.  I just received my “records” from Mercy Ministries for the first time today via Certified Mail.

I kept the envelope in my purse for a few hours – I just wasn’t sure I was ready to see what was in there.  You see, here is the reason I requested my records in the first place:  (note: this is the very, very condensed version)

While in a counseling at Mercy Ministries of America, during a regression memory therapy type of session that Mercy calls “Soul/Spirit Hurts” – it was “revealed” to me by the Holy Spirit through my counselor that I had been abused.  Not just abused by anyone, mind you…but abused at the hands of a close family member.

Now, I didn’t have any memory of this abuse, but since the Mercy Ministries staff knew “by the Holy Spirit” that it was true, I thought it must be also. (See previous posts about how I got to the place where I believed everything Mercy Ministries Staff had to say)

Many months after graduating Mercy, I was encouraged to address these abuse allegations with that family member, which I did.  It was agonizing because I didn’t want to damage my relationship with my family, but I was told by the church pastor (whose “authority” Mercy Ministries and Nancy Alcorn, specifically, told me to be under) and Mercy that without addressing the abuse and cutting ties with my family….God wouldn’t be able to use me fully.

Continue reading “Mercy Ministries counseling leads girls to believe they were abused, then uses their stories to make money”

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