“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.”

No Mercy Ministries, your wish to do good is not enough

This piece by Mercy Survivor Chelsea was originally published on her personal blog, The Pink Propaganda, and can be viewed here.

On page 38 of Ministry Today Nov/Dec 2013 Edition of Ministry Today, Nancy Alcorn is quoted as mocking people who do not believe in her ministry:

I still don’t believe the church can possibly care for all those disturbed girls. Juvenile delinquents and unwed mothers, they’re the ones responsible for their situations, plus we pay taxes so the government can take care of them. Those girls need highly skilled, well educated professionals. A bunch of Christians with good intentions can’t possibly do much good”

In 2008, the Sydney Morning Herald did an interview with Dr Ian Hickie about Mercy Ministries. Dr Ian Hickie is a professor at the University of Sydney and founder of the Brain and Mind Research institute.  Professor Hickie is quoted as saying:

“One of the most important developments in mental health services over the past two decades had been a move from religious-based counselling to evidence-based practice.

Most of the non-government or community sector have moved very rapidly to a professional base, so while they maintain their core values they have also moved to make sure their services are scientifically based rather than religious-based.

Organisations purporting to provide health services had to be properly accredited, with qualified staff, safe facilities and regular reporting on the outcomes of those programs.  The wish to do good is no longer enough; the serious possibility that you do harm also must be a consideration.”

I feel that Mercy Ministries needs to take into serious consideration that their program may be doing more harm then good.

As one reason why they should exchange their treatment for mental illnesses from religious practices like deliverance sessions and prayer, I came across an article the other day that said that for the very first time in history they will be able to test for major depression with a simple blood test and already can with an MRI.

This is ample proof that mental illnesses are physical conditions and not choices that can be changed, like their counseling manual labels them.  “Choices That Bring Change”.  This is ample proof that that they need qualified therapists, 24/7 access to nurses and onsite doctors to monitor medications.

No, I’m sorry Nancy Alcorn, good intentions are NOT enough.  People are sick and it’s your civil duty to either take care of them properly or back out of the race.

And it’s anyone’s civil duty who supports them to demand that they adopt better practices for mental health illnesses.

Mercy Ministries compared to other treatment centers

This piece by Mercy Survivor Chelsea was originally published on her personal blog, The Pink Propaganda, and can be viewed here.

For all intents and purposes for this blog we’re going to call Mercy Ministries a treatment center.  Although technically I hate referring to them as that, because I think it gives girls the wrong idea.  So bear with me.

A couple blogs ago somebody else compared Monte Nido to Mercy Ministries and I thought I would do the same, only with the place that really did help my eating disorder, as opposed to Mercy Ministries, that made it worse.

Mercy Ministries lacked a fundamental understanding that people with bulimia often go up and down in weight.  While the head to toe shot that I sent them in November was an average sized person, I had gained weight since then.  With bulimia I went up and down and all over the place and this seemed to upset them.

These are things that happened at Mercy that would NEVER happen at the place that I went to.  (Brandywine Eating Disorder Unit outside of Philadelphia).

  • Being asked to wake up earlier to exercise more then the other girls
  • Being more obsessed with me losing weight then I was
  • Putting me on certain food restrictions. Peanut butter, desserts, etc.
  • Offering me gifts, gift cards to Starbucks, the bookstore, etc if I lost weight.
  • Leaving me on plate check longer then any of the other girls, because they thought I would sneak food.

While I may have been overweight at the time, I was still very self conscious of my body, but I went in with an attitude that I wanted to become more confident in who I was as a person and I just was not prepared to be told day in and day out how much weight I needed to lose.  Just because I was overweight, it did not mean that my eating disorder was not serious and did not warrant their consideration in the way that they spoke to me about me losing weight.

Mercy Ministries lacked structure.  Their whole program lacked structure.

There were never any group therapies.  You had individual counseling once a week.  It wasn’t conducive for recovery.  They had one time a week that 15 of us sat together and discussed like a chapter of a book that we read.  They refer to this as “group therapy”, but it’s not like “hey these are my emotions…”  It’s more like a book club.

Brandywine had at least seven or eight groups a day, plus you see the psychiatrist daily, you see your therapist 2-3 times a week, you see the family therapist once a week or more depending on your family, and you see the nutritionist at least once a week, more if you request.  You also have a team meeting once a week.  You have interns on hand.  There’s an art therapist.  A yoga instructor.  A music therapist.  Animal therapy.  You have certified RNs passing out medications and signing medications in and out of computer systems to make them accountable.  And RNs are always on the units, and medical doctors are always available 24/7.

Your therapist is typically masters degree or doctorate degree.  They have done rotations at eating disorder units in their training and have worked with eating disorders prior to their employment.

They offer Christian therapists and work with you spiritually if you choose this route.

The nutritionist has been working with eating disorder for quite some time and has a lot of knowledge about them.

Also the leader of the program, a psychiatrist got his degrees at Yale, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.  He has his medical degree and has been working with eating disorders for most of his adult life.  We saw him daily for psychiatric drug maintenance and for monitoring for medical issues.

At Mercy Ministries, I never saw a nutritionist once.  I believe when I got there I asked about it and they sent me to see the house manager, who had no formal training in nutrition, and she told me what I was supposed to eat for the whole four months I was there.  I believe some locations do now have nutritionists, I do not believe that they are required to have a background in eating disorders.  About half way through my stay we got a fitness director.  She had no say in what we ate.

At Brandywine exercise is not entirely discouraged, but 5ks and unmonitored hour long sessions at the gym for women who have issues over-exercising would not have been allowed.

The leader of the program at Mercy, the actual program director. I am unaware of her education.  But I can promise that it was nothing more then a masters degree.

At Mercy Ministries, you have a counselor.  Mine was not formally educated to my knowledge.  I do believe some of them are now.  Medications are just put into bags and passed out.  I know for me I had controlled substances in my bag and every staff member had access to that room, some of them prior young women of Mercy Ministries themselves.  Staff members slept in that room.  Staff members with no medical degrees at all were passing out heavy psychiatric drugs.

We had an art closet.  But no art therapist, even though I don’t really think all that jazz of art therapists and music therapists and yoga therapists is needed to have a good treatment program, it makes it much less boring.

Also at Brandywine, we had a community TV, access to newspapers, even access to the internet and cellphones, we were allowed to listen to ipods, form relationships with whoever we wanted to.  Get mad, have negative emotions.  We were also allowed to discuss with each other why we were there, what brought us to this place.  I mean it centered around our group therapies, it bonded us as a group.  It made us feel heard.  It wasn’t a dirty little secret.  I felt that I was really allowed to bond to other girls without getting in trouble for being socially awkward.

There was a staff ratio of maybe 1:6, versus 1:15 on the weekends at Mercy Ministries.

If you self harmed at Brandywine it was taken really seriously and people talked to you about it.  “Why did you do it?” “What happened?”

At Mercy Ministries, it was really hot and cold about whether girls would get help, depending on the staff member and what they “thought” with their level of “psychiatric expertise” you were trying to do.  Sometimes women were often ignored for cutting themselves, because Mercy Ministries staff thought they were just seeking attention.  Other times, staff would take the item(s) away and leave it at that. But rarely would they ask you why you did that or ask you to talk it out.  There were a couple times that I purged at Mercy Ministries and didn’t even mention it to staff, because I knew I wouldn’t get any help for it and if anything I would just get into more trouble.

At Brandywine I felt safe to come to staff and say “I messed up, can you help me”?

The only thing that was better at Mercy Ministries was meal times.  At Brandywine, there’s always awkward silence as everybody stares at their food.  At Mercy Ministries, only a certain percentage of girls have eating disorders and those who do are controlled by threats like “if you don’t eat we’ll send you home”, or “We absolutely do NOT tolerate not eating and if you want to be here then you better eat, because there are 700 girls on that waiting list and we will replace you”.  So there is really no girls not eating, because they have a lot of power over you.  Nobody wants to go home, everybody is scared of not being able to survive without Mercy Ministries.

At Brandywine, a lot of the girls will get back at staff by not eating their meals.  Or show that they are angry by not eating.  That doesn’t happen at Mercy Ministries.  You think that would be a good thing, but it’s actually not.  The freedom of choice should be there.  The freedom to express emotion openly should also be there.

Another thing different was the feel of the places.  Mercy Ministries was very well decorated.  I mean Brandywine is government funded, not privately funded, so it does give them some limits on what they can do with the place.  Many Mercy Ministries homes have balconies and pools and big stair cases, and the breakable pieces sitting on the end tables.

Brandywine is more of an open unit, but you cannot leave the property.  It’s the same with Mercy Ministries.  Mercy Ministries may claim that you can leave at any time, but if you try, they will come after you and they will yell at you.

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.

Challenge

This piece by Mercy Survivor Britt speaks soberly on the dangers of unqualified staff and harmful treatment of issues at Mercy Ministries.  This piece was originally published on her personal blog and can be viewed at Hits & Near Misses.

So I’ve just been released from nearly two weeks in confinement once again. Two weeks of sitting waiting for god knows what. Doing what they say, swallowing what they say and controlling myself when they say.

I was compliant. I needed to be. To get what I wanted. As always.

The one thought that was constantly plaguing my head (amongst the millions of others racing through) was that where I was is actually a proper facility. Every time I go to get my meds- morning, lunch and bedtime- I remembered Mercy days. The Bible College students handing them out willy nilly, asking coldly why would I need this stupid pill, as I seemed like I was doing fine?

http://i2.wp.com/lightsallaround.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/prayer-and-medicine.jpg?resize=340%2C226Only now, after years of hospitalisations do I realise you actually need actual qualifications to distribute medications. You give out the wrong one or the wrong dose, bam, you or the girl is gone.

If a girl has a psychotic episode, you do not treat it with Godly Beliefs or prayer. You call a damn ambulance if you’re not qualified to deal with that shit and have the appropriate facilities on site. Same goes with if a girl is violent or is seriously self harming. You don’t lock them in a room on their own and wait for their mood to subside, whilst moving the rest of the girls to the other end of the house. Those episodes traumatise everyone involved.

You’re messing with people’s lives here.

And that’s exactly what MM were doing. The whole time.

I know we, the girls, go on about it a lot. But I guess it’s part of letting people know the truth.

Little things happen in our lives today and they spark memories of the 6 to 12 or more months we spent in the program.

We then begin to challenge either what’s happening in the present moment or challenge our past.

I know what I’m going to challenge. And I now know what I’m going to believe.

Loss

This piece by Mercy Survivor Britt shares about her starvation and suicide journey from post-Mercy Ministries low point and beyond.  This piece was originally published on her personal blog and can be viewed at Nineteen Blue Dots.

http://i0.wp.com/fc03.deviantart.net/fs71/i/2013/041/2/f/lone_flower_by_bbschoes-d5uh54l.jpg?resize=640%2C426

I’m pretty sure most people who have seen pictures of me or knew me six years ago would have a few ideas of what I did to my body during those times.

The reason I’m writing about it today is basically because over the last week it’s really hit me that I think I’ve moved on. Well, I hope I’ve moved on.

Continue reading “Loss”

How to set boundaries

This piece by Mercy Survivor Chelsea was originally published on her personal blog, The Pink Propaganda, and can be viewed here.

If there was one thing that we didn’t learn in Mercy Ministries it was what boundaries we were allowed to set up and keep. In fact even those who have decided Mercy wasn’t very good for them at all still have issues with boundaries. It’s not something you really think will change your life, some of you may even think you don’t DESERVE to have boundaries and others may just find it difficult to set them up in general. Of course boundary setting isn’t anything new or personal to those of us who went to Mercy Ministries, many, many people, even some of the people we look up to have issues with boundaries.

Setting up boundaries is an important aspect to life. It helps to relieve anxiety and depression, and helps you in the end take care of yourself, which you totally deserve. A lot of cult survivors have issues with boundaries. But lack of boundaries are almost celebrated in today’s culture. There’s a lot of comedies set up around people who lack boundaries, and it’s laughed at. I’m watching two and a half men right now, an entire comedy set around unhealthy boundaries.

What are some signs of unhealthy boundaries? 

[1]

– Telling everything about yourself. Not being allowed to have secrets. This was something very key at Mercy Ministries. Even after I left Mercy and I started my blog I continued to just “tell all”. “I went into Mercy with this, this and this”. You’ll notice by their testimonies that all their graduates “tell all”. It breaks my heart. They probably don’t realize that they don’t have to do that. Eventually I changed my blog and I realized that I am allowed to keep secrets. YOU ARE ALLOWED to keep secrets.

– Being forced to trust somebody right off the bat. Talking intimately during the first meeting. Falling in love with brand new acquaintances or anybody who reaches out first.

– Acting on the first sexual impulse- Having sex because your partner wants you to, not because you want to

– Going against your values in order to please others

– Accepting gifts, sex, touch or food when you don’t want it.

– Touching a person w/o asking or being touched by a person w/o them asking.

– Taking as much as you can just to get/ or giving as much as you can just to give.

– Letting someone else control your life.

– Letting others describe your reality

– Believing others can anticipate your needs

– Expecting others to fill your needs automatically

– Falling apart, so someone else will put you back together

– Sexual, Emotional, Verbal and Physical Abuse

Your Rights

[2]
The right to ask for what you want and need

The right to say no to something

The right to express all your emotions, negative and positive

The right to change your mind

The right to NOT be perfect

The right to follow your own beliefs

The right to say no to anything that you’re not ready for, feel unsafe doing or if it conflicts with your values.

The right to determine your own priorities

The right to not be responsible for anyone else’s actions, feelings or behavior

The right to expect honesty from other people

The right to be angry at someone

The right to be unique

The right to express fear

The right to not know

The right to not have an excuse or need a reason for your behavior

The right to make decisions based on your own feelings

The right to your own personal space and time

The right to feel safe and be in a non abusive relationship

The right to make friends and be comfortable around people

The right to change and grow

The right to have your wants and needs respected by others.

The right to be happy

 1. Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries, Sierra Tuscan Recovery Program

2. Personal Bill of Rights, Therapist’s Guide to Clinical Invervention

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