How to cure anorexia with exorcisms

Live News, Australia/July 18, 2008

Exorcisms to cure mental illness and drug addiction, locking vulnerable people away from friends and family, prayer as a solution to all problems - sounds like psych ward from last century. But actually it's just the 'Mercy Way'.

The once mighty '*Mercy Ministries'*, a secretive outfit that purports to treat young women with mental illness, is now in serious trouble.

Bankrolled by controversial Pentecostal group the 'Hillsong Church' and Hillsong-aligned Gloria Jean's coffees the group has been the subject of a number of complaints to authorities. They've already closed one of their two facilities.

Women who've been through its programs say the main 'treatment' they were prescribed were exorcisms and prayer study, supervised by bible studies students. That's whether they were dealing with anorexia, anxiety disorders or substance abuse.

And all the time being kept virtually as prisoners - cut off from the outside world with no TV or newspapers, with severely restricted access to friends and family and made to even ask permission to go to the toilet.

Nowhere was the promised phalanx of mental health professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and dieticians. Just bible studies students whose answer to all questions was more prayer.

Three former residents told they were left in a worse state after going to stay at Mercy Ministries - which still operates in a house in Sydney's Glenhaven.

Meg Smith (not her real name) says she went to Mercy because of the group's promise of free treatment for her anxiety disorder and panic attacks.

But she quickly became disheartened after "free" meant signing over her Centrelink payments to the group and "treatment" didn't include proper access to doctors, psychologists and social workers.

"The 'counsellor' I had was not qualified to treat mental illness... nobody there was. She was in the middle of a mercy 'in-house program' to teach her how to prayer counsel," says Smith.

"I spent months there and the only 'therapy' I had was prayer readings and an exorcism."

She paints a disturbing picture - where a group of vulnerable girls isolated in a suburban home and forbidden to leave or form friendships on pain of being expelled - followed a punishing daily routine.

A seven o'clock wake up call and a stint of cleaning was followed by bible reading.

After that came a "praise" session where the girls would stand in a circle, eyes closed, singing along to Christian music and jumping on the spot with arms outstretched.

After locked food cupboards were opened for a piece of fruit or a few tablespoons of yoghurt it was back to class - usually taking notes from audio tapes by Joyce Meyer, an American evangelist.

After lunch, homework, letter-writing and recreation were followed by more cleaning and bible study.

Smith began to get worse.

"I was having lots of panic attacks they seemed to be getting worse at ministry," she said.

"I couldn't work out why, apart from being away from friends and family and my support network.

"I was self harming - I was cutting my arm with anything I could get my hands on - scratching with anything from my nails to paper clips.

"I never really had a problem with self harm beforehand. When you tell them about self harming they said I was trying to get attention and I was taking their valuable time away from girls with real problems."

Finally Smith was told she would have to have what she describes as an 'exorcism'.

"The counsellor gave me a list of different demons - demon of anger, demon of unforgiveness, demon of pride, there were lots of them and I was told to go away and circle the demons I had in me or around me," said Smith.

"I was really scared they cast demons out of me, one by one, and they became quite excited and animated during the process, and spoke in tongues.

"It was the counsellors and myself and they put their hands on me and started praying one by one for each of the demons that were on the list to be cast out of me.

"After each demon was cast out I had to say 'I confirm the demon of X has been cast out of me in the name of Jesus and is unwelcome to return.'

"The whole time I was there, all I heard was that I'm demonic.

"Even after the exorcism, when I had the next anxiety attack, I was told that they had already cast the demons out, so therefore I was obviously either faking it, or I had chosen to let the demons come back, in which case I was not serious about getting better.

"They kept telling us that the world can't help us, professionals with all their 'worldly qualifications' can't help us, only Mercy could because only they have God's power.

"So when I was kicked out for being 'demonic, unable to be helped, not worth a place at Mercy and because I had taken too long to pray to become a Christian... it left me worse than I had ever been before in my life.

"They told me I would never get better now because I had blown my chance. I started cutting my arms and wrists more than ever, with their voices echoing in my mind as I did it."

Suicidal and self harming after being removed from the program, which she now thought was her only hope, she went to see a "proper psychologist to prepare me to go back to Mercy to help me fit in better."

"The psychologist had never heard of them but told me to stay away from them that person helped me more in the 40 minute session - really listening to me and understanding me."

Smith, who is on the mend after a long process, is not alone.

Other women who spoke to described being "literally bible bashed" and supervised during limited visits to GPs and psychiatrists.

One Patricia (not her real name) says when she approached staff with problems she was asked if she had prayed about it.

"In the end I stopped going to staff members because they just didn't seem to help me and that's one of the things they commented on but how can you when they're not actually helping you?" she said.

"I went to the psychiatrist three times in eight months I was there to get medication - and I was always accompanied in the session by a staff member.

"Once I told the psychiatrist what I was feeling and when we got back to the house I was yelled at because I hadn't told the staff there Now I go to the psychiatrist every two weeks - that's the kind of care you need when you're acutely unwell.

"Four to six weeks after I got kicked out I tried to kill myself and I almost succeeded and it was because I didn't think I could live or get better without Mercy because it was just so ingrained into me."

Since the former clients of Mercy Ministires began telling their stories, high profile "sponsors" listed on their website have disappeared. No longer do Rebel Sport, Bunnings Warehouse or LG electronics have anything to do with with the group.

Gloria Jean's coffees, which once had collection boxes for the groups in all their stores, and whose former managing director, Peter Irvine, was a director at Mercy, still maintains conspicuous support.

The group have closed their Queensland centre but the Sydney facility remains open for business - still without scrutiny from government authorities.

Ready to continue to dispense their peculiar kind of care to the most vulnerable.

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