Consult-Liaison Informal-curriculum Medicine Observations Reading

Psychiatrists and Demonic Possession.

A colleague sent me a Washington Post article, “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.

After the author lists his credentials as a psychiatrist, Dr. Gallagher explains why he believes that some people who demonstrate unusual behaviors do not have psychiatric conditions, but are actually possessed by demons.

The sheer number of comments (over 2300 as of this writing) tells me that many people had strong reactions to this piece. (Or perhaps the bulk of comments are vitriolic arguments, name calling, and other unfortunate aspects of communication on the internet.)

It appears that Dr. Gallagher and I share some general principles when it comes to psychiatric diagnosis. For example, he notes:

I technically do not make my own “diagnosis” of possession but inform the clergy that the symptoms in question have no conceivable medical cause.

Indeed, one of the most important services psychiatrists can provide is giving an opinion about whether someone has a psychiatric condition or not. A common saw in medicine is that diagnosis guides treatment. Incorrect diagnosis can lead to incorrect treatment which, at best, will do nothing or, at worst, will harm someone.

Say a man is thrashing around the room, shouting nonsense, and looks confused and angry. The cause of his behavior is low blood sugar. If, however, all the physicians in the room assume that this man has schizophrenia, then instead of giving this man some form of sugar, they may instead give him a variety of tranquilizers.[1. In practice, people with low blood sugars who are behaving this way often receive both tranquilizers and sugar.]

Sometimes people may not recognize that a psychiatric condition is present, which can delay useful treatment. Sometimes people assume that a psychiatric condition is present, when in fact it is a medical condition. Sometimes people assume that a psychiatric condition is present, when in fact it is a variant of human behavior.

As I’ve written many times in the past, though, context matters. Where I believe Dr. Gallagher has taken a misstep is his assured belief that, if these individuals don’t have a psychiatric condition, then they must have demonic possession.

All of his referrals come from clergy who believe in demonic possession. To his credit, Dr. Gallagher does comment

I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness —– which represent the overwhelming majority of cases —– from, literally, the devil’s work. (emphasis mine)

In medical parlance, then, the chief complaint for his referrals is always “does this person have a psychiatric condition?”. It appears that the answer is often “yes”.

I must comment, though, that I cringed when I read some of his descriptions of people with psychiatric conditions. For example, he describes some of these people as

histrionic or highly suggestible individuals, such as those suffering from dissociative identity syndromes

I will assume that he has no ill will towards “histrionic or highly suggestible individuals”, though no one wants to be described as either. It’s not clear to me if he believes in the construct of “dissociative identity syndromes”. I am skeptical.

He also describes some of these people as

patients with personality disorders who are prone to misinterpret destructive feelings, in what exorcists sometimes call a “pseudo-possession,” via the defense mechanism of an externalizing projection.

Perhaps I underestimate the fund of knowledge the general public has about psychoanalysis. I had to read this sentence twice at a slow pace to understand what he was trying to say. If you believe in psychoanalytic theory, then, yes, that sentence makes sense. If you don’t believe in psychoanalytic theory, then that sentence might make as much sense as demonic possession.

If the answer to the question of “does this person have a psychiatric condition?” is “no”, though, then it appears that the only other option Dr. Gallagher considers is demonic possession:

This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed.

This is dangerous, whether we’re talking about medicine or any other field. The moment you limit your options, you overlook evidence that supports other ideas and focus only on evidence that supports your theory. This is also called confirmation bias.

The following list may be absurd, but for the sake of illustration, is the only possibility that the “self-styled Satanic high priestess” is possessed by a demon? What if:

  • she is an alien?
  • her previous devotion to the Catholic faith has turned into contempt, so she is using her abilities to combat the faith?
  • she has excellent skills in “reading” other people and senses that Dr. Gallagher may be “histrionic or highly suggestible” to the ideas of demonic possession?

In medicine we often speak of the importance of “having a wide differential diagnosis”. Yes, the man described above who was thrashing around the room, shouting nonsense, and looked confused and angry could have schizophrenia. He could also have low blood sugar. Or he might:

  • have dangerously high blood pressure
  • have an infection in or around his brain
  • not be getting enough oxygen
  • be bleeding in his brain
  • be intoxicated with illicit drugs
  • be experiencing toxic effects from a poison

If we’re only thinking about a few of those things on that list, we might miss everything else. And all the things on that list can lead to the man’s death.

Do I think it is possible that people are possessed by demons?[2. My initial experience with Catholicism was spending hours in debates with my college roommate about transubstantiation. She, raised in the Catholic faith and able to recite Catholic prayers while falling asleep, insisted that the Communion wafer was literally the body of Christ and the wine was literally his blood. I insisted that this was physically impossible. These debates then wandered into other differences in Catholicism compared to other Christian faiths (faith versus good works, etc.—to be clear, I’m a big fan of good works).] Maybe. Is “demonic possession” high on my list of possibilities? No. Do I think that people experience spiritual distress? Yes. Do I think Dr. Gallagher has done an excellent job of promoting his forthcoming book about demonic possession? Absolutely.

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