These Souls Were Made For Shrinking

Patty Hawkins had been crying for three weeks straight after the death of her father, but as a devout Pentecostal, she would not consider psychotherapy. Only after she heard about LifeCare, a "Christian psychotherapy" center in Ft, Worth, Texas, did she agree to go and unburden the secret that was tearing her up: her father had sexually abused her when she was 4. "God is the most important thing in my life," says Hawkins, 46, "and I wanted to make sure he is the most important thing to whomever I see."

Fundamentalists and other conservative Christians have long been wary of psychologists and psychiatrists-and the feeling was mutual. Freud regarded religion as "a universal obsessional neurosis," and, says psychologist David Rosenhan of Stanford University, "psychologists and psychiatrists tend to be the most secular people in the world." But now each side is eying the other with new respect. Some psychiatrists recognize that religion can play a role in stabilizing fragile egos, while conservative Christians are realizing that being born again is no vaccine against mental and emotional illness. One result: Christian psychotherapy, a for-profit movement aimed at mining new markets by offering evangelicals a Bible-based approach to problems from anxiety and depression to sexual abuse and schizophrenia.

"We use the same teachings and principles as other psychiatrists," says psychiatrist Steven Schultz, medical director at LifeCare's Ft. Worth center. "But we do it in the context that we're Christians." In group therapy, patients learn to face their fears by walking a plank 30 feet in the air. In another exercise, they develop trust by walking ropes in teams (if you lean too far from your partner you both fall). But where secular therapists might be satisfied with restoring self-esteem, Christian therapists want patients to recognize God as the only reliable source for self-worth and happiness. "Traditional therapy deals with the healing of mind and body," says Bob Osburn, who co-founded LifeCare in 1991 and now oversees centers in New Mexico and California as well. "We deal with the healing of body, mind and soul."

In commercials aired nationally on Christian radio stations (at a cost of nearly $50,000 a month), LifeCare courts evangelicals with the assurance that theirs is a full-service "unabashedly" Christian psychotherapy center. Everyone from janitors to physicians must profess a personal commitment to Jesus. LifeCare therapists refuse to use hypnosis, yoga or meditation, which they consider contrary to the Christian faith. What they do offer is large doses of prayer and hymn singing. Drawing on Biblical verses such as "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (ii Cor. 5:17), therapists assure patients paralyzed by guilt over, say, having had an abortion that God forgives them; they counsel addicts that God's grace will make them free. Homosexuals are expected to go straight.

Although LifeCare offers medication and hospitalization in its 40-bed Ft. Worth unit, most of its Christian therapy is almost sermon like. "We all have this empty space inside that we may try to fill with food, drugs or sex," says social worker Diana Thwaites. " But the only thing that's going to fill it is our personal relationship with the Trinity." For some patients, such evangelical prodding seems to work instant miracles. "I came in yesterday," says Sandy Gardiner, a victim of rape and incest, "and already I've let go of a lot of things that I've held for a long time-just through trusting God."

Most of the new Christian psychotherapists operate mainly through franchises. Nationwide, the franchisers have about 1,200 hospital beds, for which they charge up to $1,200 a day. (But there's room for a little Christian charity: LifeCare sets aside 38 cents of every dollar of profit to provide free care for those who can't afford it.) Besides LifeCare, a division of the Comprehensive Care Corp., the major players are Rapha, with 18 centers, Minirth-Meier, with 25 centers, and New Life, with 18. "These groups are growing because they can make money," says psychiatrist David Larson of the National Institute of Mental Health. "[The patients] are good Christians; they will not sue, and they pay their bills." But psychiatrist Walter Byrd, an evangelical who practices in Arlington, Va., worries that Christian psychotherapy maybe promising more than it can deliver. " You don't treat a schizophrenic with Bible verses," he says. Still, for evangelicals who shun psychiatrists like Satan, a psychotherapy that speaks in Biblical accents may turn out to be a blessing.