Is speaking out against exorcism taboo for us?


I’d like to plant the seeds for a future a discussion on exorcism for mental health professionals who are active in their professional associations. For example, psychologists in state psychological associations and the American Psychological Association.

To put things in context: We have seen bills related to outlawing conversion therapy and we’re seeing conscience clause bills related to psychotherapy come up in various legislatures. We’ve seen the Governor of TN just sign this bill related to allowing therapists to refuse to provide service to people who identify as LGBT because of the therapist’s “sincerely held principles.” Taking on some of these topics has not been taboo for many of our psychological associations however, and we can be sensitive to religion while also doing what is right for public safety and peoples’ rights.

But what about exorcism? Is it time for us to take a new and public approach to exorcism? The practice of exorcism has been fatal in multiple documented cases. In addition, it is not hard to consider the likelihood that a person who is presumed to be possessed by a “demon” actually likely has a mental health concern. They should receive appropriate, evidence based treatment from mental health professionals. They should not be treated like their problems are caused by “evil spirits.”

Personally, medical treatment likely exists for people accused of being possessed. Denying them appropriate care and then potentially harming them through exorcism could fall under some definitions of evil. Is Exorcism Evil? Personally, I don’t like the term evil. It fails to define the problem in a way that I can solve something or prevent something. However, when you consider that exorcism has led to child abuse and death in some cases I think I’ll go ahead and leave the door open for the use of that “evil” term in relation to exorcism. Maybe exorcism is evil (my bias of course is that I don’t believe in demons).

There are two recent trends impacting exorcism that I think you should be aware of.

  1. DSM-5 Dissociative Identity Disorder: DID was altered in DSM-5 to include a reference to “an experience of possession.”
  2. There is a new TV show coming out related to exorcism

A TV show? Yes, it is called Outcast and the first episode will air on Cinemax in early June, 2016. It is based on a comic book by the same person responsible for the Walking Dead comic (and now one of the most watched shows on television, the Walking Dead). I think it is fair to say that while we may downplay exorcism as something we don’t pay attention to, and we may downplay Cinemax as something we don’t pay attention to– lots of people are paying attention to Robert Kirkman right now (and they have Netflix). This new show, based on the comic, is related to exorcism and demon possession (full disclosure I’ve read the first few issues of the Outcast comic and am a big fan of the Walking Dead comics and the TV series).

Personally, I don’t agree with calls to not air art that is controversial. However, in the comic and reportedly in the first episode of the TV series the protagonist, a man with an exorcism-like ability, beats a child who is possessed by a demon. This is of course child abuse. Regardless of what your religious views are or your views on whether demons are real– beating a child is always child abuse. My personal bias: demons and/or “evil spirits” don’t cause diseases and disorders.

People who act as if possessed by demons need evidence-based mental health interventions– not exorcism and child abuse. I think if you’re in a position to influence whether or not an organization will make a public statement in response to a TV show that will likely get a lot of eyeballs (when it hits Netflix), we can take steps to help mitigate any negative impact on the public.

For example, perhaps we can prevent the next death from exorcism instead of simply issuing yet another press release after someone dies. Alternatively, perhaps the psychologists who previously presided over harsh interrogation techniques (i.e. torture) like waterboarding could find new work as health professionals presiding over and certifying the safety of exorcisms.

OK, to leave you with a little humor at least; I’ll be honest. I also liked the movie the Exorcist. It’s a classic. When my daughter was a toddler and she would have one of those developmentally appropriate tantrums that mimic demonic possession I would keep my spirits up by jokingly referencing The Exorcist: making a sign of the cross and repeating “the power of Christ compels you!”

You are free to apply that movie reference in your own life the next time you’re dealing with a child whose head is spinning around– just don’t beat the child like what apparently will be happening in the first episode of Outcast premiering on Skinimax this June. Hopefully it doesn’t inspire anyone to try it at home.

Given that this show will likely depict violent exorcism, we should probably be prepared to talk to the public about exorcism and child abuse.

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