Satan or psychosis? Mistaking mental illness for demonic possession

A 1598 woodcut depicts an exorcism. (CC-BY 2.0)

A 1598 woodcut depicts an exorcism. (CC-BY 2.0)

WASHINGTON — Exorcists are in high demand but that may not be the devil’s doing.

Expellers of evil spirits are being sought with increasing frequency internationally, in part due to the mentally ill seeking spiritual cures for medical ailments.

“There is a desire to rid themselves of what they conclude is demonic,” said Mary Chasteen, auxiliary to the Rev. Vincent Lampert, the exorcist of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “It sounds like the rite is a magical cure.”

She elaborated, “Many people get caught up in self-diagnosis and refuse to entertain other causes.”

A July report published by the London-based religious think tank Theos, called “Christianity and Mental Health: Theology, Activities, Potential,” cautions the faithful against such “Christian over-spiritualizing,” explained as “a tendency to ascribe anything and everything to spiritual causes when other medical ones may exist.”

But noting the crucial role religion and spirituality can play in healing, the American Psychological Association Foundation — which does not have a formal position on exorcism or possession — says it is not uncommon for those with mental health concerns to first seek a faith leader’s guidance.

The Rev. Dr. Raymond Studzinski, an associate professor of spirituality at The Catholic University of America in Washington, says just as the anointing of the sick often empowers the ill, so can rituals like exorcism help people regain balance in their lives.

“The prayer experience which is part of exorcism could have a benefit for those struggling with powerful issues and give them the sense that God is with them in the midst of their struggles,” he said.

‘Boy With a Demon’ in the Good Book

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops highlights Matthew 17:18 as an example of the ministry of Jesus Christ from which the formal rite of exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church evolved. The New American Bible, Revised Edition titles Matthew 17:14-21 “The Healing of a Boy with a Demon.”

The passage reads in part, “When they came to the crowd a man approached, knelt down before him, and said, ‘Lord, have pity on my son, for he is a lunatic and suffers severely; often he falls into fire, and often into water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus said in reply, ‘O faithlesss and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him here to me.’ Jesus rebuked him and the demon came out of him, and from that hour the boy was cured.”

Though some versions of the Bible describe the boy as having seizures, the use of “lunatic,” an archaic name for someone rendered mad by the lunar cycle, hints at age-old blurred lines between mental illness and demonic possession.

A 1907 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association details exorcism as the first step in primitive psychotherapy.

Jesus rebuked him and the demon came out of him, and from that hour the boy was cured.
— Matthew 17:18, The New American Bible, Revised

“The priest-doctor, when dealing with a mind diseased, would try first exorcism, hoping thus to expel the devil or demon that was possessing the patient. Failing in this he would employ some such pharmacotherapy as the administration of asafetida (a malodorous resin sometimes called devil’s dung); and the prognosis was indeed bad when an evil spirit could remain in a body saturated with this substance.”

As medicine advanced, it became Catholic Church protocol that exorcism-seekers must first undergo medical and psychiatric evaluations to help separate the possessed from the mentally ill.

“We are not mental health professionals,” Chasteen, of the Indianapolis archdiocese, stressed. “We do not act unless the person has eliminated all other possibilities, has a pretty good idea how they came to be possessed and are serious about their faith.”

Chasteen says the Catholic Church’s strict rules for screening exorcism candidates also weeds out attention-seekers and non-believers.

“This is something the Church absolutely avoids,” she said. “Pretend it’s demonic in case it is? Pretend faith counts when it doesn’t? Not healthy for anyone.”

This practice, according to the bishops’ conference, also avoids “unnecessarily drawing attention to the machinations of the devil or giving credit where no credit is due.”

The devil made me do it

Dr. Thomas Plante is a licensed psychologist and Santa Clara University professor who treats people who have had or sought exorcisms. He says the vast majority of patients seeking deliverance from demons are suffering psychiatric disturbances.

“Very often they’ll say, ‘I’m possessed by the devil, it’s the devil making me do these things,’” he explained. “Sometimes they have hallucinations about the devil.”

He says psychology, like other fields of medicine, focuses on ruling out maladies: “If we find out that, yes, the person does meet the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia or brief reactive psychosis or whatever and we treat that and those symptoms go away, well, that tells us that probably it’s not the devil after all.”

Anthony Hopkins as the rev. Lucas Trevant in “The Rite” (2011). (Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema)

Anthony Hopkins as the rev. Lucas Trevant in “The Rite” (2011). (Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema)

But Plante points out that even the mentally healthy often blame Satan for their thoughts and feelings as a coping mechanism.

Plante recalled an older, devout Catholic woman who had been referred to him by a priest. She was upset about having “less than pure” thoughts and impulses, he said.

“She would say, ‘The devil has possessed me to have these thoughts,’” Plante said. “But she doesn’t really believe that there’s some little devil-person in her brain or in her heart … it’s just her way of understanding her problem.”

International ‘Satanic panic’

The prevalence of mentally ill persons seeking exorcisms is not a phenomenon unique to the U.S.

“Possession occurs in all cultures,” said Dr. Joseph Laycock, who teaches “Demonology, Possession, and Exorcism” at Texas State University. “There’s almost no culture on Earth where there is not some form of spirit possession.

“However, in a lot of cultures, it can be a good thing or it’s a neutral thing. And it’s kind of unique in Christianity that we have this idea possession is always bad, is always demonic.”

While some symptoms of mental illness and demonic possession can mimic one another, Laycock notes those of the latter may vary among faiths and cultures.

“There seems to be these kinds of cultural scripts; when people are possessed, they tend to behave in ways that their culture says possessed people are supposed to behave,” he said, adding that during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, allegedly possessed Catholics acted differently than afflicted Protestants.

Possession occurs in all cultures. There’s almost no culture on Earth where there is not some form of spirit possession.
— Dr. Joseph Laycock, Texas State University

Plante believes the migration of people of different faiths is contributing to the current spike in claims of possession.

“Western Europe has gone through this transformation in recent years because of migrants and refugees,” he said. “If you happen to have people that are more, sort of, susceptible to this kind of, way of thinking, that all of a sudden are flooding into your population, well, you’re gonna see more of this.”

With terror threats and political turmoil now commonplace in many parts of the world, societal stress and group hysteria could account for an increased demand in exorcisms, Plante said.

“It’s a very stressful time in America,” he said. “So, you’re going to see a certain degree of an increase in this kind of manifestation of that stress.”

Media, too, has a powerful effect on the world’s relationship with the rite, Plante and Laycock agree.

Just as “The Exorcist” novel and film sparked a wave of demand for exorcisms in the early 1970s, everything from modern TV shows and podcasts to newspaper articles can cause what Plante deems a “social contagion effect” regarding possession.

“I always think that we’re kind of on the edge of some kind of a Satanic panic,” Laycock said.

‘The Exorcist’ endures

It’s been more than 40 years since William Peter Blatty penned “The Exorcist” in 1971 and William Friedkin directed the Academy Award-winning film of the same name in 1973, but their jarring, unforgettable display of demonic possession still haunts. Fox’s “The Exorcist” TV series is in its second season, a theatrical version of “The Exorcist” opened this month in London’s West End, and “Inside The Exorcist” is a chart-topping new podcast.

Mark Ramsey, creator of “Inside The Exorcist,” says the frightening tale, inspired by true events, is “timeless. Light versus dark, good versus evil, doom versus redemption. It’s a big canvas.”



These themes also beckoned Sean Crouch to “The Exorcist” on Fox.

“People are really interested in ghosts and demons and these things that scare us, because  we’re all interested in our mortality,” said Crouch, an executive producer on the show. “There’s also a huge element of hope to it … if a demon exists, then angels exist.”

Crouch, a Catholic who once dreamt of becoming a priest and is now married to a pagan, doesn’t believe in demons or possession.

“Probably exorcisms do far more damage than good over the course of human history,” he said, which is why Crouch was so keen to highlight mental illness in season two of the series.

“My one worry, obviously, with doing a show like this is that it does open up to people who maybe have mental health issues who don’t go to the proper people for help,” he explained.

A promotional image for Fox’s “The Exorcist” TV series. (Fox)

A promotional image for Fox’s “The Exorcist” TV series. (Fox)

Crouch says the current season of “The Exorcist” focuses on depression, adding that episode three highlights the Catholic Church’s protocol of identifying the mentally ill among exorcism candidates.

“I wanted to make that a big deal here that [priests] don’t ever want to do it on a healthy person,” he said.

‘People blame everything on the devil’

About five years ago, the Rev. Miguel Bustillos says he faced the devil for the first time. He had traveled to Tampa, Florida, to visit his ailing uncle.

“It turns out he was possessed,” he said. “[The devil] mocked me and ended up taking my uncle’s life.”

That experience propelled Bustillos to study at The International School of Exorcism, founded by the Rev. Bob Larson. Though he is a non-denominational Christian pastor, Bustillos also took the Vatican course on exorcism in Rome.

The Maryland-based exorcist says it’s important to first differentiate between deliverance and exorcism.

“Prayers of liberation are prayers directed towards God, asking God to liberate an individual,” he said. “An exorcism is an exorcist making direct commands to the devil.”

A person that tells me they hear voices is immediately asked to go see a mental health professional first
— The Rev. Miguel Bustillos

Bustillos, who has performed more than 100 exorcisms, says only 5 percent of cases require an exorcism. He believes “Christian over-spiritualizing” is rampant.

“People blame everything on the devil,” he said. “People don’t want to take any accountability for their behavior. It’s always easier to blame the devil than to take responsibility for actions. The world is more corrupt than ever.”

Bustillos has also found that people seeking his services usually have psychological trauma.

“Many of my clients are referred to mental health experts if there is any suspicion of mental illness,” he explained. “If the mental health professional tells me that the person has a spiritual issue, then I deal with the person.

“A person that tells me they hear voices is immediately asked to go see a mental health professional first.”

While Bustillos has established a methodology for consulting with people who claim to be possessed, he isn’t bound to the Catholic Church’s storied rituals. He says he is trained in performing deliverance ministry via Facebook Messenger and Skype.

“The Catholics stick to the book,” he said. “I am more adaptable to whatever demon I am dealing with.”

Bustillos added, “Exorcism is a very complicated field. You have to be pretty smart to go face to face with the devil.”

Exorcising the unpossessed

For many in the U.S., demons roam outside of fiction. According to a 2007 Pew Research survey, 68 percent of Americans completely or mostly agree that angels and demons are active in the world, while a 2012 Public Policy Polling survey found that 57 percent of Americans believe in demonic possession. Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the power of exorcism, says a 2013 YouGov poll.

Laycock sometimes gets emails from people claiming to be possessed by demons. Most, he mused, are neither possessed nor mentally ill — just bored.

While the Catholic Church has strict requirements for obtaining an exorcism, the advent of the internet has made booking self-proclaimed exorcists with little to no training a cinch. In the U.K., Theos reports an increase in exorcisms “in defiance of any actual rules or procedures put in place by any church,” something Plante says is dangerous.

In cases where people with mental illnesses undergo unnecessary exorcisms, they not only don’t receive the psychiatric care they need but also could suffer additional psychological consequences.

“That could be a traumatic experience,” Plante cautioned, adding that unsanctioned exorcisms can mirror hazing. “People can get badly hurt.”

On occasion Plante gets patients who stump him, whose behavior remains unexplained after a complete psychiatric and medical evaluation. Those he refers to the Rev. Gary Thomas, exorcist and inspiration for “The Rite,” a 2011 film starring Anthony Hopkins.

“The demonic,” Chasteen said, “are not to be toyed with.”


This article was written for Lindsey Leake’s COMM 622 Writing and Editing for Convergent Media course on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.

Lindsey Leake