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Mercy Ministries needs more than the Bible for its treatment methods

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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Our front-page story on Mercy Ministries points out serious health risks. It wasn’t easy to report. We don’t want to negatively portray a faith-based organization and possibly hurt its reputation. The international nonprofit organization helps females with life-threatening situations. Its facilities are in Lincoln; Monroe, La.; Nashville, Tenn.; St. Louis, Mo., Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Mercy Ministries opened a 23,000-square-foot residential facility in October 2009 at 1896 McLain Drive in Lincoln. Mercy Ministries helps females between the ages of 13 and 28 who “face a combination of life-controlling issues such as eating disorders, self-harm, drug and alcohol addictions, depression and unplanned pregnancy,” according to its website (mercyministries.org). On its website, Mercy Ministries gives scores of stories of females turning their lives around via a spiritual focus. For instance, 2011 graduate Heather said, “ … The Lord showed me that my body is beautifully and carefully designed by Him and that nothing can change my value to Him. I met Jesus at Mercy, and I see myself as beautiful through His eyes…” And 2012 graduate Nicole said, “While at Mercy, the staff showed me love that I had never experienced before. I realized that I needed to fully surrender to God and let go of control. I learned that God has a plan for my life and that I am forgiven, pure and accepted... ” In addition, The News Messenger talked to two women who said they overcame their problems at Mercy Ministries. One woman was at the Lincoln facility and the other at the St. Louis facility. They were enthusiastic about the faith-based organization. However, The News Messenger also heard from two concerned fathers. One father said his anorexic daughter did not receive the right treatment in Lincoln. The other said his drug/alcohol-using daughter did not receive the right treatment in Monroe. While their daughters had different issues, treatment and outcomes were similar for both, according to the fathers. Through Mercy Ministries’ recovered memory therapy, the daughters remembered being sexually abused by them, their fathers told The News Messenger in separate conversations. The fathers said those claims were false. While it would be so much easier to take the 29-year-old organization at its word, we have to listen to what the fathers are saying. Because eating disorders are deadly. They have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. A National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders study found that five to 10 percent of those with anorexia die within 10 years after the disease’s onset; 18 to 20 percent die after 20 years. Only 30 to 40 percent fully recover. That doesn’t include mortality statistics for those with bulimia or those who binge eat. “It’s a mental disorder but it affects the physical systems,” said Susie Roman, the National Eating Disorders Association’s program director. “It increases the rate of heart attacks, heart failure; the suicide rate is elevated for those who suffer. All your organ systems are affected.” Someone with an eating disorder might die without the appropriate medical treatment. Eight to 10 million girls and women and one million boys and men struggle today with this disease in the United States, according to Jennifer Lombardi, MFT, Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program’s chief admissions officer. Headquartered in Sacramento, Summit treats those with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders in a medically supervised program. Summit is recognized by the national Joint Commission on Health Care Accreditation. The commission’s mission is ”to continuously improve health care for the public … by evaluating health care organizations and inspiring them to excel in providing safe and effective care of the highest quality and value.” Mercy Ministries is not accredited with the commission. Christy Singleton, the Mercy Ministries executive director in Nashville, Tenn., told The News Messenger that her organization’s treatment does not involve doctors. The Lincoln facility has a registered nurse on site, according to Singleton. Mercy Ministries "includes biblically-based counseling and teaching, life skills training and transitional care services,” according to its website. It provides a “Christian residential program for young women who want help.” Its mission is “to provide opportunities for young women to experience God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and life-transforming power." For individuals with eating disorders, though, the Bible as doctor is not a viable treatment option. Medical hands-on treatment is imperative. “Treatment guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association recommend a medical component (a physician monitors the patient’s vital signs very closely because clients are high risk), a nutritional component (seeing a dietician at least once or twice weekly) and a therapeutic component (individual, couple and group therapy),” Lombardi said. Even health-related professionals don’t always know about the disease’s potentially fatal consequences. “We get referrals from professionals who don’t understand the risks involved because of the high mortality rate,” Lombardi said. “There are both short- and long-term consequences with cardiac issues, osteoporosis, tears in their esophagus. Professionals across the board don’t necessarily receive extensive training on eating disorders. For example, in my graduate program, the training on eating disorders was a 10-minute discussion. Just like any other area of specialization, it’s critical to obtain special training and continuing education.” Lombardi was referring to doctors and therapists. In Lincoln, Mercy Ministries employs a registered nurse, according to Singleton. However, the community relations manager in Lincoln refused to tell The News Messenger Tuesday if a nurse is on staff. Mercy Ministries has been in controversy before. In October 2009, Mercy Ministries Australia closed after ministry officials agreed to pay damages to residents. The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia ran an article Oct. 28, 2009 that said Mercy Ministries “prevented the residents gaining access to psychiatric care, choosing to focus on prayer, Christian counseling and exorcisms to “expel demons” from the young women, many of whom had serious psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety and anorexia.” Sounds like déjà vu, just in Lincoln. For the sake of the residents, I hope Mercy Ministries’ leaders will incorporate medical treatment in their care. The residents’ lives depend on it.