Demonic Possession: a case for mental health professionals?

The word “exorcism”, for most of us, brings to mind the rotating head of Linda Blair and the terrifying accompanying sounds of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, but for others, exorcism is the most effective treatment for what many would call psychosis. With reports that the pandemic sparked an increase of requests for such ceremonies, it’s crucial that we address such beliefs with sensitivity, but also rationality.

Back in July, it was reported that Universal Studios were planning on a new trilogy to continue the story of the Exorcist, slated to open in cinemas in October 2023. Just three months later, in October, a week-long event was held at a university closely affiliated with the Vatican to address the astronomic rise in requests for exorcisms. More than 100 priests and bishops from across the world gathered at the Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum on the only official, sanctioned course on the subject, where they discussed magical rites from Brazil, and “The symbolism of satanic and occult rituals”. The annual course is now in its 15th year.

““We have seen an increase in the request for exorcisms because the pandemic has made people more vulnerable to the idea that Satan or some evil entity has taken over their lives,”

People have fallen into poverty, they found themselves suffering from anxiety and depression. They feel that their lives are no longer in their own hands but in the hands of a malign force. It’s a big crisis.”

Speaking to the Telegraph, Father Gian Matteo Roggio

In May 2021, the Baptist Union of Great Britain were also worried about the Occult and released a warning to the British people not to try and contact their dead relatives. Warning against spiritualist practices to try and commune with those who have passed because of Covid-19, they talked about concerns about “open[ing] up a doorway to great spiritual oppression which requires a Christian rite to set that person free.” The fear was that the limited contact with sick patients would lead to “unmet psychological needs” and the inability to say goodbye, coupled with the reduction in the numbers allowed at funerals would exacerbate grief, leading people to seek solace in satanic practices.  

The Baptist Union were also concerned that Spiritualistic practices were a threat to the Christian Church because of the level of support, relief from grief and sense of belonging that Spiritualism provided. Christian news reported that Manchester Police had also been involved in contacting Spiritualist churches in the area due to fears about the “exploitation of vulnerable groups”

Culturally acceptable treatments

In 2009, a report into the Mental Health Needs Assessment of Black and Minority Ethnic Communities was produced by the South Tyneside Primary Care Trust, which noted that both community leaders and BME communities struggled with a lack of awareness of mental health issues, often attributing people’s struggles to being “possessed by the devil” and that “Faith-based treatment is usually culturally accepted”.

A Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland (NI) report, Ethnic Minorities Mental Health Toolkit: A Guide for Practitioners, published in 2014, noted the response to mental health in varied communities, noting that belief in karma can often lead believers to surmise that those suffering with mental ill-health are being punished for sins in a former life, whereas others believe that it’s a sign of weakness, meaning that sufferers delay or deny seeking treatment.

African societies are highlighted as particularly likely to believe in mental illness being attributed to demonic possession and that a spirit is “making demands”. Making recommendations on how to demonstrate cultural competence, in order that practitioners may “provide effective health care which takes into account people’s cultural beliefs, behaviours, needs and values”, the document details exactly how cultural beliefs impact mental health treatment and recovery.

We already know that Black people are more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act in the UK than White people. In an attempt to deal with this disparity, the final report of the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, published in December 2018, made recommendations on how to tackle “the disproportionate number of people from black and minority ethnicities detained under the act”.

How common is a belief in spirit/demonic possession?

The Bible

Let’s go back to biblical times, if we may. The idea of demonic/or spirit possession is perhaps best described in Mark 5:1-20 (also found in Matthew 8:28-14 and Luke 8:26-39). Emphasis is mine.

When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stonesFor Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man […]

It’s notable that a quote that I’ve omitted from these verses “my name is Legion, for we are many” (Latin: Legio mihi nomen est, quia multi sumusis) is used in literature, film, comics and books; perhaps most notably in the film The Exorcist. It’s so popular, it warrants its own Wikipedia page.

Medical establishments

The Christian Medical Fellowship, ‘formed in 1949 [with] over 4000 UK doctors and 1000 UK medical students as members’ also has something to say on the subject of demonic and/or spirit possession. Emphasis is mine.

[T]here is a danger that we look for demonisation amongst those who are psychiatrically ill for a variety of reasons which do not have a basis in their similarity with the description of demon possession as found in the Gospels. Psychiatric patients, especially those who are psychotic, behave, speak and think in ways that we find difficult to understand. We therefore struggle to find an explanation for their experiences, and if science does not have convincing answers, then we look elsewhere

As Christians in psychiatry, then, we have an important responsibility. We need to be informed of the findings and limits of psychiatric research, so that we can offer rational scientific explanations and treatments for psychiatric illness, where these exist.

We need to bring healing to, and show love and care for, patients with stigmarising [sic] mental illnesses, just as Jesus showed compassion for those who were stigmatised by physical illness (eg Mt 8:1-4). However, we also need to recognise that not all human problems will be explicable by medical science. The New Testament tells us that Jesus has commissioned us to ‘ drive out demons’ (Mk 16:17), and we must be ready to respond to this commission if and when we are called to do so.Psychiatry, then, is not the only domain within which we need to be aware of demonic influence […].

What’s the harm?

There is little point in replicating the efforts of Tim Farley’s whatstheharm.net which details the worldwide deaths of  over 1,000 victims of this belief, but I will detail those of the 6 known UK victims of exorcism:

Kousar Bashir, 1991, 20 years old. Died after enduring systematic beatings during a horrific eight-day ritual after her father, Mr Bashir, paid two holy men £200 to rid an “evil spirit” people believed had taken over her body. He later killed himself in 2005.

CHEUNG KIU HO, 1993, 48 years old, murdered by her brother. A post mortem showed fractures to most of her ribs, a lacerated liver and multiple internal injuries. Mr Chi, who said he had been trying to stamp out evil spirits that had possessed his sister, was jailed for five years. 

Mary Odegbami, 1994, 26 years old. Murdered by her fiance who believed she was possessed by the devil because she didn’t want to marry him. He locked her in a room, starved her and beat her for 14 days. She eventually died.

Farida Patel, 1993, 26 years old. She believed herself possessed by djinns. Her family called a Syrian woman to conduct an exorcism. She was beaten for hours, fracturing nine ribs.

Sadly, a similar belief, one of witchcraft, has already claimed the life of at least one known victim, only two years ago:

Kristy Bamu 'murdered over witch claim' in Newham (BBC News)
Kristy Bamu suffered because of his family’s beliefs

In 2018, the Guardian reported “three cases of coerced exorcism” where the victims said they felt traumatised, abused and like she had “been raped”.

In 2012, a conference held by the BME Health forum said ‘the extent to which [demonic possession] is recognised and / or discussed in clinical practice is less than we would expect, even in UK cities where there resides a diverse population.’ It’s clear that these beliefs deserve sensitivity and cultural competence, especially as the pandemic has pushed away a lot of the communities that need extra support to access services.

With a rise in crime linked to ‘Witchcraft’, according to a Sky News article from October 2021, leading to rape, child abuse, false imprisonment, threats to kill and attempted murder, coupled with renewed interest in exorcism, it’s clear that these harmful beliefs need to be tackled and taken seriously.

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