November 03 2017 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: my brother, a devout and sensible Catholic, has a 16-year-old daughter who has, in my opinion, mental health issues. She has no friends, is a problematic student, and is prone to verbal and physical abuse against her parents. She often suffers from bouts of depression. She absolutely loathes the Church and refuses stubbornly to go to Mass on Sundays. She has always been a difficult child, but after puberty her problems got worse. Needless to say her parents are deeply distressed by this situation. 

My niece has already seen a number of psychologists, and her parents are faithfully following their advice. The situation, though, is not improving, and lately my brother told me that he and his wife are thinking of contacting an exorcist. Do you think this is a good idea?


Thank you for your question. Adolescence is a difficult time for many people, and it sounds like your niece is having a particularly challenging time.

Based on the information you have presented, it is difficult to know what, exactly, the psychologists have recommended and what, exactly, your brother and his wife are supposed to be following through on. Psychological treatment can be very difficult, and progress is often slow, with families experiencing two steps forward and one step back. Likewise, what clients say their therapists said to do and what their therapists actually said are often very different things. I do not mean to say that your brother is lying. Only that clients often struggle to appropriately understand and apply what the therapist is recommending, and sometimes their best effort is very different from the effort they need to make and will, eventually, be able to make with ongoing professional support.

In light of this need for consistent support, I am concerned that you indicate that your niece has gone to many different professionals over the course of her young life. This may indicate a lack of consistency that is undermining any opportunities for real progress. Many families, in their desperation and pain, seek out an ‘expert’ who will solve the problem for them. They come to therapy for a few sessions, and when the guru doesn’t provide the miracle they are looking for, they go off to seek a different miracle worker – whether that miracle worker be another mental health professional, a nutritionist, or, in this case, an exorcist. But real change takes time, commitment and the building of a therapeutic relationship. 

Seeking prayer for your brother’s family, and your niece, in particular, is a very good thing. I would even recommend your brother seeking Anointing of the Sick for his daughter. Many people do not realize this is an option for mental illness. Even so, I would definitely not recommend seeking an exorcism at this time.

Demonic possession is real, and Catholics do believe in the power of exorcism. But an exorcism is a very serious spiritual response to a very serious spiritual problem. It is not intended to be a cure for mental illness, and it is not to be taken on lightly. Most dioceses have very specific procedures in place to make sure that exorcism is used only in appropriate situations after a proper medical and psychological evaluation determines that the phenomena displayed by a patient – such as speaking fluently in languages they have never learned, or having observable physiological reactions to sacred objects and rituals (not just emotional reactions) – are not explainable by normal medical or psychological means. 

I understand that your brother is very frustrated with his daughter, but you are not describing diabolical, supernatural, behavior. You are describing the behavior of a hurting, angry young woman who is in pain. 

The best thing you can do is to encourage your brother and his wife to find a good therapeutic team with a counselor they can trust and a psychiatrist who can provide appropriate medication – and stick with them. Also, please ask your brother and his wife to make sure they are regularly attending therapy with your niece. Children, in general, and teens, in particular, do not tend to do well in individual therapy. Family therapy is almost always preferable – especially with resistant children.  Even under the best of circumstances, where the child wants to improve and is not resisting treatment as your niece is, children and teens do not have the character strength to follow through on what the therapist asks them to do from session to session. They need their parents to know how to create structures of love and support, as well as structures of accountability that will enable the child to stick with the program and make productive change.

Updated on November 03 2017