Bill Gothard Claims to have Secret Cure for Mental Illness
CW: Contains spiritually abusive theology
By M. K. Wiley, H. A. Editorial Team
Total Outreach for Christ Ministries in Little Rock, AR, hosted Bill Gothard for a talk they titled “Do you want SUCCESS? Bill Gothard ministers a word concerning Journeying to Love.” (The talk can be viewed in full on the ministry’s website. Click on “on demand video” to find the video.) I watched the live-stream last week, and although it has been over 10 years since I’ve seen Gothard speak, I found myself surprised that a man publicly accused of sexual abuses against women, some of them minors at the time, is still apparently in the business of sharing his “basic principles.”
He and his former “ministry,” itself basically a money-making scam for Evangelical fundamentalist homeschooling families, ATI/IBLP (Advanced Training Institute/Institute in Basic Life Principles), are facing a lawsuit from a number of women and men who worked for him, many while quite young, when his ministry was thriving some 15 years ago.
So I’m surprised that any church or ministry is still willing to give credence to anything this 81-year-old man has to say.
The term brainwashing comes immediately to mind. Gothard is a persuasive, almost didactic speaker. In this particular talk, he is touting his new book. It seems he had samples of the book at Total Outreach’s dinner & speech. And of course a new book means the possibility of financial gain. He sits at the head table with the other speakers and, one assumes, leaders of this organization.
The gentleman who introduces him, perhaps a leader at Total Outreach, emphasizes that he has attended both ATI/IBLP’s The Basic Seminar and The Advanced Seminar; he states that he wishes he’d been taught the principles touted in Gothard’s seminars as a child. A chill goes up my spine, because I was taught Gothard’s ideas as a child, and no good ever came of it, only an intense weight of guilt that has contributed, over the past 15 years or so, to my struggles with survivor’s guilt and PTSD. Gothard takes the podium as the keynote speaker. He justifies himself throughout the evening, without ever bringing up the charges that are currently being leveled against him. Gothard begins by talking about how he thought he had the basics of Biblical teachings covered with previous seminars, but then realized “in recent years” that the Lord had more to teach him. Living out the true Christian life is simpler than he has understood before. Meditation, he emphasizes, is key.
Gothard doesn’t have a lot of new things to say in his “new” talk. Most of it sounds familiar to those of us who ever were enmeshed in his prior organization. The Four Fears that he outlines are, he claims, innate to every human experience, and are at the root of every mental illness. He claims to be able to treat mental illness effectively while heavily implying that most children of Christian parents, and perhaps, I think, he is referring to people like me – children of parents who once adhered to his cult’s teachings – who leave the church are also probably mentally ill. This correlation is disturbing. In some cases, of course, he’s right. But for many, the depression, anxiety, OCD or PTSD diagnoses can be directly traced back to a traumatizing religious past.
Gothard makes no mention of such an idea. Instead, he disregards psychology almost entirely. This is something of a contradiction, since – without using a professional’s name – Gothard claims that, “a psychiatric professor… at UCLA… made a discovery that has incredible implication for believers… I mean he gets your serotonin up through [good food] and sunlight…” – and, Gothard insists, the true way to conquer mental illness is through “light.” More powerful than sunlight, Gothard informs his audience, is “The Word of God.” In other words, Gothard is equating the effects of sunlight on individuals with conditions like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) with reading and studying the Bible.
Like most who claim to be of Evangelical Christian faith, Gothard believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but just as in his ATI days, he tends to pick verses at random that seem to have some relation to his current ideas. His dialogue involves using the word “serotonin” a lot, but his statements seem poorly informed. For example, he seems to argue that “young people” are leaving the Christian Church in high rates in recent years due to mental illness; but there’s a cure for that in the Bible he claims: “the serotonin… it’s called the happy hormone! If we’re happy we’re… rejoicing… but if our serotonin gets low… we have thoughts of suicide, mental problems… because it’s involuntary.” He equates high serotonin levels with happiness, and indicates that “real” Christians have high serotonin levels. But, he says, those levels can drop if we don’t meditate constantly. He insists: “no science discredits this… and [it] has more implication for Christians than for anyone else.”
Gothard describes young people growing up “in the faith” only to leave it, and he seamlessly ties this into the idea of depression – and the disbelief and questioning that leads to “atheism” in adult children “raised in the church.” He explains a definition for our “inner reins” as our intestinal tract. He suggests some pretty weird ideas that don’t seem at all scientifically sound. He mixes in a little pop psychology: he says that serotonin is the major neurotransmitter that effects emotions, health, and behavior, adding that sensual desires come from one’s “reins.” Poor decisions or “sins” like anger, Gothard claims (and one wonders, is he also thinking of sexual misbehavior?) “…are spontaneous responses from our reins. It even has its own, its own, its own system. The intric [Is he trying to say “central”? I’m not certain] nervous system… it’s a totally separate system. But… most of those signals [from our heart/reins] go to our brains… now let me tell you why this is so important… about a month ago I… heard from a family from Canada….” Hold up. Did he just say our hearts and intestines control our brains? Because that’s not a scientifically accurate statement. At all.
He goes on to describe a 22-year-old Canadian young woman who apparently couldn’t sleep, had deep depression, and other possible symptoms. Gothard claims she was “speaking incoherently” and notes that she was “delusional” – not a very specific diagnosis. Of course it’s deeply concerning that her family sought help from Bill Gothard, sexual assault defendant. The brother was so “distraught” that he said, “She’s getting worse by the hour! What should we do?”
Gothard tells the family that a psychiatrist would “diagnose her with something” in order to feed her serotonin. Why isn’t this a wise choice? Well, Gothard says, “the drugs have a deep damage to our reins, and the rest of our body. And it doesn’t work… [the effects of psychiatric medication] are limited at best.” So he writes off psychiatric medication, just like that, to make room for what? In typical form, Gothard is just trying to sell us snake oil: a supposedly “easy” and “Biblical” alternative to reality.
He advised the family not to have their daughter see a psychiatrist. Rather, to solve mental illness, he suggests, one must do something much more significant to one’s “gut brains” than use FDA approved medication. He called the family a week later to “check up on things, and the parents said, she’s totally well. She’s totally healed. I mean, do you know what we have here? This is solid! Why hasn’t the medical community figured this out… It’s all there! It’s in the literature!… It’s in the blood brain barrier. It’s only to keep out the drugs, not the blood. God has given us an answer to mental illness, and it’s in His Word.” Well now. This sounds like characteristic Gothard.
So what’s his cure-all this time? We’re born, he explains, with these Four Gut Fears: Fear of Rejection, Fear of Failure, Fear of Poverty, and Fear of Death. Serotonin levels control these fears. The adrenaline related to fear builds up, and if our serotonin levels are low due to poor spiritual practices, the result is mental illness. God has revealed to Gothard that the only true way to live the Christian life is to literally meditate day and night, another typical Gothard talking point. In order to increase our serotonin levels naturally, he says, “Well, one way is light. Sunlight. But there’s a better way. And that’s what I’m going to share tonight.” He uses a typical ATI/IBLP-style Power Point Presentation to describe the Four Fears, which humanity supposedly inherited from the Literal Adam & Eve. He concludes that “Inner Light” is what will keep serotonin levels up for true Christians, who will therefore be happy.
My heart sinks as I realize that this whole presentation is targeting young people; it is meant as a way for parents to control their teenagers or young adult children who are asking questions and perhaps even leaving religion. Why does this scare Gothard so much – young people leaving strict fundamentalist Christianity for more liberated, progressive ideologies? Because, he says, in typical fear mongering form, Christianity itself is in danger! Preying upon the fears rampant in the Evangelical Christian church these days, he says that if we don’t learn how to love one another with “all of our reins,” “Christianity’s going to wash out.”
He uses some Greek words to back up his claims, but they aren’t particularly persuasive. He continues clicking through his Power Point Presentation, arguing “youth today are fear dependent.” Hung up on the Four Fears, he says, many young people’s mentality is “let’s get some pleasure before we die!” This is because we think with our hearts, he says, not our brains. I don’t even know exactly what he’s trying to suggest. That our instinctive urges are more powerful than our minds? In that case, he can speak for himself. He insists that, “our neurotransmitters are more in our heart than our brain.”
If that doesn’t seem to make sense – from a scientific (or any) point of view, he goes on to explain that we are made up of mind, heart, and spirit. This is classic ATI/IBLP stuff here. He equates “heart” with “intestines,” and that’s about as close as we get to a definition of our “reins.” One’s faith must begin in the intestines, apparently, rather than the mind. He says, “believe with your heart, confess with your mouth and you will be saved!” That’s great and everything, but it hardly makes him sound any more lucid.
He goes on to loosely tie in meditation, emphasizing that round-the-clock “Biblical” meditation will repress our basic human desires (i.e. “desires of the flesh”). And then we will feel all happy again, because our serotonin levels will rise! What a guarantee. He says, “…a lot of people believe with their mind, but it doesn’t save ‘em!” None of these ideas are “new.” He’s just come up with a new presentation for old ideas.
Gothard concludes by throwing in the Prosperity Gospel (the idea that if we are “good” God will give us material wealth). He’s followed his own principles, he announces, and everything he’s ever done has been successful! So what’s the key he’s going to share with all of us? It turns out, nothing new. Meditation is the key to success. It’s interesting to me that he never delves into what meditation really means or how to do it; apparently he’s just referring to constantly trying to pray. A prayer list, he informs us, is essential. “A Prayer List” gets its own slide in the Power Point. “[I]f you delight in God’s Word, Day and Night… whatever you do will prosper. And I’m here to tell you, it works!” So his apparent state of decent health is a result of his righteousness? It’s ironic that someone who is being sued for molestation and sexual harassment by over a dozen women is claiming to be righteous.
“Either delight in the Word of God day and Night or don’t, and get spanked!” –
He doesn’t go much further with his “spanking” comment but there is scattered clapping and some laughter from the audience as he speaks.
Gothard is clearly out of touch with reality. I think he really believes his new shtick will work, will take hold, will reap financial reward. I’m not questioning the state of Bill Gothard’s mental health. I think he still has a sharp mind. But I would say, adamantly, that I don’t believe he buys into anything he’s saying. He just wants to restore his image, his reputation, his credibility, and make some cash on the side. I’m guessing he’ll need it.
As Gothard closes in prayer, he employs a tactic any attendee of a Gothard seminar is familiar with: “It’d be wonderful for you to tell God one thing… and in fact, let’s do it differently. Every eye open, everyone looking around… How many of you want to be successful? How many of you are successful? Do you want the grace to do it? Revival begins here!” A man in the audience yells, “Hallelujah!”
As he winds down, Gothard comes to the most disturbing claim of the entire talk. He indicates that he has gained access to a mental health facility and is “trying this out” on the mentally ill. Trying what out is still pretty unclear, but one assumes, if he does indeed have mentally ill victims, he is at the very least having them view power-point presentations and teaching them that meditation and a prayer list will solve all of their problems. Will increase their serotonin levels. This is no miracle cure. This is taking advantage of those who are unable to defend themselves. As I mentioned earlier, I have PTSD, of the severe chronic variety. I have major depression and anxiety. And I have left the church. So he is targeting people like me, it seems, with false hopes and expectations.
Of his work with mentally ill patients? He simply says (and eerily so) – “it’s working.”
one of the things that gothard promises by following his version of the bible (large families, home schooling, certain ways to eat, dress and worship, etc etc ) is that God will bless you richly in many ways, etc etc. Here is “how god blessed” one gothard homeschooled family that i personally know. They had a dozen or so kids, used ATI homeschooling materials, avid church goers and worship leaders—the wife now in her early-mid 60’s is suffering from dementia (the last kid just graduated high school–and one of the older sons, (in his 30’s) had an innappriate relationship with an underage girl which caused several leaders in the church to be arrested because they did not report it to the authorities because they want to obey God’s laws first using Gothard’s do not spread a bad story.
It is because gothard promises something that God never promised that ATI families’ children are turning away from God–they have been lied to. When one wants to see how Christian life is lived in a communist or Islamic country today there is nothing but pain, suffering, facing death because they name the name of Christ. The apostles died as martyrs because they would not deny Jesus when many of them saw the risen Christ. But nobody wants to hear that gospel.
What Gothard teaches is certainly wrong, but it also seems wrong to say that God “failed to bless” this family because one son sinned criminally and the mother is sick. People and life are not perfect, even for the most righteous in Scripture.
I do agree, however, that the criminal (is it criminal? Should it be?) failure of church leaders to report what they knew is absolutely a consequence of Gothard’s teachings, as you said.
thank you Mel, that is exactly what I meant… when my husband and I attended church with this family, who were some of the nicest we ever met, our church had 3 pastors, all gothardized. When all sorts of bad stuff was happening to us —- 2 tornadoes in 3 years, his many illnesses, dog/gang attack, lack of funds, car problems, etc etc, we were wondering was it something we had done wrong (mostly it ws on me as the wife…my lack of housekeeping skills, not wearing dresses, not wanting children, teaching in a public school, etc) or was it the devil attacking us for having faith in Jesus. It kept me going in circles until we basically quit church and God just let us rest and not even try to do anything christian. Then after my hip surgeries, I found the website called Recovering Grace and read the stories of those wounded and destroyed by Gothard and the many confusions fell away. IT was the man and his false teachings and God was removing him from that pedestal we had all put him on.
Gotcha. I’m sorry you had to go through all that, but am glad you’ve found rest and healing. 🙂
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Um?? I’m sorry, I think I’m missing something, or maybe you weren’t directing this at me?
Loura, this was not directed at you.
Ok, I was just confused, thanks. 🙂
Although I have walked the road myself, it is still hard for me to understand how/why folks go for the uneducated (meaning non-expert, not unintelligent) response on medical issues, particularly mental ones. I suppose it seems easier than multiple appointments and drugs? It plays on fears that culture cultivates of atheist doctors and “satanic” medicine. It promises a fully healed outcome rather than maintenance or tragedy, and who wouldn’t want that?
Gothard and the rest who prey on vulnerable people are just plain evil. On that note though, I wanted to express some concern about a passing line in this article, “he is the only white person in the video. That concerns me. Gothard is not, has never been, afraid to prey upon the vulnerable.”
It sounds a bit like infantilizing other races, as if by their very skin color they are “vulnerable” to this old, white man. It is entirely possible I am over-analyzing, but wanted to point out how it sounded to me.
I do love the photo at the top, it seems to say, “this is a bad frequency”.
Admin Note: Loura Shares a Story, thank you for pointing out how those lines come across as infantilizing POC. I have removed them altogether in order to not hurt anyone. We are very sorry our words were hurtful. Thank you again for bringing it to our attention.
Not a problem. Thank you for your prompt and kind response. 🙂
When I saw the title “Claims to have Secret Cure for Mental Illness”, my first thought was “Okay, I’ll Bite” and clicked.
Not surprised; Got Hard’s making his comeback through classic quackery with a Christianese coat of paint and his own unique Power Point talkng points spin.
This is classic quackery, sowing distrust of “the medical community” through implied Conspiracy Theory before presenting My Secret Sure Cure that sounds like a duck. The main difference is that it’s a variant on Nouthetics using mental illness instead of the usual cancer or diabetes sure cures.
(When I was a kid in the Sixties/Seventies, my grandmother subscribed to Prevention magazine. Reading her copies, I got very familiar with the usual quack promises, tactics, and shticks. And Got Hard’s latest smells of it.)
A little knowledge, in this case, Psychology 101, is a dangerous thing.
Perhaps it would be helpful to leave caring christian feedback?
I only have 2nd hand knowledge of Gothard and his teachings, however the damaged he has wreaked leaves me with nothing but disgust and disdain him and I’m flabbergasted that anyone at all thinks it’s appropriate to give him a platform.
The following observation is made with an eye towards supporting you in your mission. I don’t want anything to undermine your credibility wrt the larger point.
I would like to call your attention to on assertion made that appears to be inaccurate – you stated there is no scientific support for the idea that the intestines can control the brain (you included the heart, for which I have no information, so I’m focusing exclusively on the brain).
The eneteric nervous system (I think you heard it as “intric” in the video) is in your gastrointestinal tract and it does have a two-way communication with the brain; it influences more than just digestion. It also, with the help of microorganisms, can produce neurotransmitters to the brain and send other signals that control mood.
It’s an incredible field of study, still in its infancy. Where Gothard goes wrong is where snake oil salesmen usually go wrong. He’s taken some interesting findings and used them to reach conclusions not even close to being supported by the science we have to date. And certainly the conclusions he’s extrapolated vis a vis religion bear absolutely no relation to what has been reported by researchers (a good portion of the research hasn’t moved beyond animal testing, which is indicative of a need to look further, but it is very foolhardy to think it will work exactly the same in humans, or at all).
I’m a person who deals with chronic mood disorders and I’ve become aware of the gut-brain connection as part of my self-advocacy/self-education research).
Like I said above, I wholeheartedly support your mission and wanted to put this before you to strengthen your efforts. I’m aware I may sound pedantic and condescending and those two objectives are far from my intention. I welcome any feedback on my presentation if I’ve come across poorly.
This link is a pretty good starter on the basics and has lots of links to other, science-based reosurces.
thank you for sharing this. this is really informative.
i agree that he does what most snake-oil people do… which is take something interesting, and propose all manner of ‘cures’ and other prescriptive treatments that have nothing to do with the fledgling research that is being done.
Thanks, Tru. I was aware there was a connection to real findings here about the role of the nervous system in the gut, but I didn’t remember enough details to discuss it in my initial comment here, other than to allude to “findings” of “science”. I’m glad you brought it up, though. The problem is not the findings themselves, as you point out, but the way Gothard makes great leaps of logic and connects the scant information we have to his delusional beliefs and outlandish promises/conjectures.
I am familiar with the gut brain connection and think the new findings are something interesting to look at. I believe that sunlight is healing and beneficial and maybe too much emphasis was put on staying out of the sun for skin cancer reasons. But what Gothard does is twist these cures into his secret new information – to claim cures for mental illness and dismiss psychiatry is misleading and irresponsible. What a person needs to do to feel better and heal themselves is their right and the way they do it needs to be respected.
This is how a skilled manipulator works. He plays on people’s ignorance and sympathies. He is quite the con artist, mixing just the right amount of scientific terms but then throwing science (and logic) out the window to position himself as the authority of it all.
Like Tru mentioned there is scientifically an enteric gut/brain connection but Gothard throws out all science to establish false religious implications and assert his spiritual control in an attempt to con the religious masses.
Intelligence Warfare; how to feed Disinformation to the target:
You first have to establish yourself as a reliable source by feeding the target minor true information. Once you are established as a trustworthy source, you can start with the Disinformation — minor stuff first, with plausible deniability. Then once the target is reeled in, you start with The Big Lie; note that you can only do this once, as it will destroy your credibility. But if the Lie is Big enough to win the war…
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Thank you for this coverage on Gothard’s latest “ideas”. I have to say it makes me absolutely sick at my stomach to see the words, “he advised the family not to have their daughter see a psychiatrist”. My parents taught us in the Gothard “system” for many years when I was growing up. My father – a renowned physician in our small town in Arkansas – told me much of the same. “Psychiatrists and the entire psychology field don’t work,” he said. “Only biblical counseling can heal.”
It’s a tragedy that so many families – and especially, children that are in need of psychological care – have been so damaged by one man’s fallacy. Of course, it’s taken many ‘followers’ to buy into all of it, but even so, it makes me physically sick.
Thanks again for this coverage.
The amount of supports this sexual predator still has sickens me.
Sicken and scares me.
And who they are can be rather surprising.
Gothard, his teachings and the IBLP have ruined so many lives, broken families, broken souls.
Thanks for publishing the truth.
And thanks for being one of the few places that doesn’t chastise me for speaking my feelings about this man and organization and telling me I need to forgive because it is the biblical/right thing to do.
*supports = supporters.
I have to say that Gothard’s words about serotonin strike me as offensive in many ways. In addition to being a infantilizingly simplistic model of the neurology of happiness, and in addition to conflating way too many things, Gothard’s suggestion that religion be used instead of medication horrifies me.
Most members of my family — including both of my physician parents — are on various psychiatric medications, particularly SSRI’s (*). The latter in particular have seemed to work very, very well for my family — I can say that I myself would not be able to function well at all without them — and my parents have speculated, among other things, that our family might have a genetic predisposition for low serotonin. That Gothard is misleading people — some of whom may be suffering due to this or other treatable conditions — to instead follow a model that would likely lead them, not only to a lack of improvement, but to self-blame for their condition is disgusting.
* A quick explanation for those who may be confused by this acronym: SSRI’s — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — are substances which work by causing serotonin to not be removed from the synapses as quickly as it would. There are other parts to this explanation and other effects of the drug, of course — some not fully understood — but these medications generally are the main course of treatment for many conditions, including mood disorders. (An example SSRI: fluoxetine, also known by the brand name of Prozac.)
First off Serotonin is the brain way of controlling appetite has nothing to do with Depression. Bill Gothard dose not know what he’s talking about. time for it to stop and enjoy his life and stop twisting The Bible and lieing to the American public people are figuring out Bill Gothard lies and his teachings are false . I cant understand why anyone would want to follow that jerk when all he is doing is running from law and not standing up for the mess he has made some peoples lives
I think part of the problem is that our mental health system in this country does have some real issues and he is exploiting people’s uneasiness with some of those things (medicine that is sometimes effective, but has terrible side effects for one). It is so much easier to take something that is not entirely understood and just dismiss it altogether. It is much easier to do this than say, continue to present an earth centric view of the universe (also Biblical), because the science is too solid on that point and more people would doubt it. I think people do see real societal issues in many cases, the problem is that his “cure” is worse than the original problem. This kind of “cure” allows for no nuance, no examination, just whole sale acceptance or rejection, and of course total adherence to the authority.