Peter Harrison's Blog - Atheism, skepticism, herpetology and typical geek behaviour
Shepherds Hill Farm – “The Great Child Abuse Secret”
by Peter Harrison
Last year I came across Shepherds Hill Farm online, when they were providing misinformation regarding anhedonia and advising that children refuse reliable medical treatment and opt instead for crosswords and starvation. My little investigation into the activities on the farm were posted on various websites, and these have been seen by many teenagers who attended the SHF. Since I started posting about the farm, plenty of these kids have contacted me directly. The minority were kids sticking up for the SHF, quoting scripture at me and explaining that this miraculous place is where they were touched by god. But the majority were from kids who claimed to have been abused. I was able to obtain testimonials that somewhat differed from the testimonials displayed on the official website. Instead of describing Shepherds Hill Farm (or “Serving Hurting Families”) in my own words, I will quote a teenager who attended SHF:
“The SHF is a christian wilderness program, where we were indoctrinated and brainwashed with evangelical christian ideas.”
Sounds like a great place to visit. Over the last year, I’ve been receiving various emails from kids who attended the farm, but there was a drop in their frequency in the later half of last year. But this month, I’ve been contacted by a few people again. Combined with the fact that I’m now blogging, I thought I would share the previous episode and bring people up-to-date.
The SHF had stepped into the technological age by starting their own blog and an internet talk show (which never seemed to have non-Christian callers taking part). I see a lot of these camps, and hear a lot of horror stories, but the blogs are generally safer. These camps don’t usually like to mention any illegal activities in their own blogs. The websites and blogs usually make the places sound wonderful, and you would only know what really goes on if you attended. Usually, the worst we find is outright preaching to blog readers. If only that were the case at SHF.
Trace Embry, the director of Shepherds Hill Farm, posted a blog entry on the SHF website titled: “The Great Mental Health Secret”. Here is the entire entry:
“Let me know your feelings so far. Because of a little known condition known as anhedonia, kids, today, can’t go two minutes without engaging in some pleasurable activity without giving the appearance of being bored to death or depressed. Why are not more mental health care professionals aware of this condition? I’m guessing one of twenty mental health professionals have even heard of it, much less have a remedy. Anhedonia manifests symptoms similar to that of depression; yet, it’s not depression. Doctors are dispensing depression medication for it and exacerbating the problem! We at SHF get to see the problem reversed by virtue of what we do here. The answer is not medication, but engaging the child in some form of critical, constructive, and/or creative thinking activity—preferably using his head, hands, feet and back, but not necessarily. A crossword puzzle is better than nothing. Anhedonia is a destruction of the pleasure center of the brain from over stimulation. The bottom line is this: because kids are pleasuring themselves into imbecility, we must require our kids to engage in activities that require responsibilities and obligations rather than an endless flood of pleasurable and high energy excitement that comes with unlimited rights and privileges. I will be back another time to follow up and give many more insights and observations.”
Shocked, I quickly typed a comment in reply to this blog entry. I explained that anhedonia (the lack of joy during experiences that would usually cause joy) is a symptom of other conditions such as being depressed or being extremely tired… and that there is no evidence that I am aware of that anhedonia can be caused by watching TV or from too much pleasure. I told them I could find no medical journal, no clinical study, no evidence at all to support what they were claiming. I explained that anhedonia is classed as a symptom of depression by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) and every other reference I could find. I explained that when I can find no evidence that TV causes anhedonia, and I see these claims posted without citing references, it causes me to consider the possibility that we are dealing with woo-merchants. My ultimate request of them was this:
“I’m definitely open to being proven wrong though, of course. So, I kindly ask the writer to cite the references. Where is the evidence that watching TV can cause anhedonia?”
I should have known better. “Your comment is awaiting moderation”. I figured I wouldn’t get a response, but I was to be surprised! My comment was not approved, but the same author wrote another blog entry in response to my comment (which nobody else had been able to read) and they twisted things around to suit their agenda, moving away from the claim that over-stimulation causes destruction of the pleasure-center of the brain. Here was the response (I’ve fixed their typos):
“In response to Peter, I can’t find anywhere where I specifically blamed TV, in and of itself, for the condition of anhedonia. However, TV can be one component of the multi-tasking that promotes the condition. As far as citing goes, if you read my May 10th entry, “Thrilled to Death”, you will find a book written with that very name by Dr. Archibald Hart. Could you explain what the “woo merchant” thing is all about? All I’m trying to do is take what I have discovered through experience and limited research to open the eyes of people who perhaps haven’t done so– particularly with parents of troubled teenagers. I understand that anything newly discovered is easily underscored. I would be glad to discuss this further with anyone who is interested in helping parents of struggling teens. Being involved, firsthand, in a Christian program for troubled teens has given all of us here some very good insights that affirm what the research indicates as true concerning the subject of anhedonia.”
Multi-tasking promotes anhedonia? Bad news for women? (I jest).
I responded again via their comment system. This time, I saved a copy so that others would know what they had censored if they chose to delete it:
“I’m not sure why you have to keep stressing that it is a Christian project when you say how experienced you are with troubled teens. Would secular or Muslim programs for troubled teens be less privy to information regarding anhedonia and other symptoms of mood disorders?
You have described anhedonia as a condition that has symptoms similar to depression when anhedonia is a symptom of depression. Next, you go on to describe the symptoms of anhedonia and basically describe attention-deficit disorder instead.
You are right to say anhedonia isn’t depression… only because it is a symptom of depression. Technically it can also be a symptom of other things like schizophrenia and severe addiction to certain drugs. Anhedonia is not the “destruction of the pleasure center of the brain from over simulation”. Dopamine is a phenethylamine which operates as a neurotransmitter in the brains of many of us animals. Reduced dopamine activity can result in anhedonia, which is exactly why some antipsychotics can cause a lack of pleasure. When we suffer from depression, it affects our dopamine pathways and we have direct evidence of this and that certain areas of the brain of a depressed person have to work harder to process happy thoughts. Paul Keedwell MD of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, an expert on mood disorders, has published studies in this area demonstrating this. Keedwell, an expert in the field, who works with anhedonia says:
“I believe that the presence of anhedonia defines depression. If one does not have anhedonia one is not depressed.”
And you say this:
“Anhedonia manifests symptoms similar to that of depression; yet, it’s not depression.”
Of course anhedonia isn’t depression… it is a feature of depression. So we have conflicting information here. Some of the information comes from a published and peer-reviewed expert, relying on physical evidence, who is able to show that your claim is demonstrably false.
The other information comes from yourself… a person who helps “troubled teenagers” find god and suggests that people in need of medication should reject their medication.
Being a scientist doesn’t mean he automatically trumps you. But the evidence certainly does.
You also said, “kids, today, can’t go two minutes without engaging in some pleasurable activity without giving the appearance of being bored to death or depressed”, as if it’s something we see in kids in general these days. It is a symptom of depression and heavy use of certain drugs that can reduce dopamine levels. Most kids I know do not experience anhedonia, because they are not depressed and do not suffer from severe addiction to certain drugs. I can only assume that either you’ve innocently misunderstood what anhedonia is, or you have an agenda of stopping kids from being stimulated by the often “godless” media. And even if anhedonia was a disease, described the way you present it on your blog, why is media the first culprit? Why not the social environment?
I haven’t said anything in this comment that could be offensive to others, and I haven’t used any rude words or spammed products at you. I would appreciate the comment be made viewable by your readers, for one simple reason: it would be good for them to understand what anhedonia is. If you don’t allow this comment, and keep yours online, you are providing misinformation. I would describe this as woo.
Describing their actions as “providing misinformation” is downplaying the situation. What they are doing is dangerous and potentially life threatening. Anhedonia can be experienced by people suffering from depression, severe addiction of certain drugs, or some mental disorders such as schizophrenia. Depression requires medication. Handling a severe addiction to the drugs in question requires medication. Schizophrenia requires medication. The medical advice from SHF? Do not use medication. Do a crossword instead. If you have reduced dopamine activity, crosswords will magically improve your dopamine levels and pathways, and medication will only make it worse. As they said:
“Doctors are dispensing depression medication for it and exacerbating the problem!”
When anhedonia is a symptom of depression, medication for depression does not exacerbate the problem. Quite the opposite.
Who cares if this misinformation was presented innocently, or in order to convince more parents to keep their children away from “godless” TV. The important point is that SHF is advising parents to avoid taking medication for conditions that require medication. Children have died from incidents like this. I had given them a pseudo-ultimatum. Approve my comment with the correct information, or at least remove their blog entry presenting misinformation. If they do neither, they are consciously choosing to provide deliberate misinformation that could negatively affect the health of others. “Serving hurting families”? Maybe they should just be known as HF. A few hours later, both my comments were gone, and they had refused to delete or even edit their own misinformation. They still suggested that people in need of medication would be better off doing crosswords instead.
Is this actually child abuse though? Arguably not. It’s just an example of people being willingly ignorant and deliberately providing false and harmful information to the public. Even if this is child abuse, surely this was as bad as it got… But this is all from their own words, on their own blog. What actually happens on the farm itself is not made public. One teenager who had stayed at the Shepherds Hill Farm shared some of his experiences with me:
“The way he wants children to be raised is way more detrimental to a childs health I believe. I believe his “program” should be shut down. They did all kinds of things to students at this place that I think should be illegal.
For instance, there was a young boy at the program; he had problems in that he lied about nearly everything he said. He also wet his bed at night. Instead of getting professional medical advice, they automatically assumed the kid was doing it to be disobedient and cause problems. Their solution was to make this child strip to his underwear and bath in below zero water in front of everyone, then carry his mattress a mile up hill on his back to clean it. Followed by a lecture about sweet dear Jesus.
Another example is punishing children by making them eat something called “special meals”. I was placed on “special meals” for a month and a half where I ate nothing but either a can of beats for a meal or a can of beans for a meal, everyday for a month and a half. (keep in mind tuition is more then it costs to go to most major universities in the US.)
This seems extremely irresponsible and abusive to me. Not to mention teaching the children the world operates in a way in which it doesn’t, and slowing their mental development.”
Feel free to disagree, but that’s child abuse in my book, physically and mentally. And it seems to be a clever business too, considering they apparently charge more than real universities yet do little but preach Christianity and feed the kids magic beans.
The SHF has demonstrated that they aren’t fully open with their blog comments or callers on their radio show, if they do not provide positive support of the SHF or Christianity in general. Anyone who visits their website sees little more than reality-contradicting claims and irrational agendas. You will find few criticisms, few second opinions. I couldn’t change how they operated their website or internet radio show, but I tried my best to communicate this message to others. I asked others to quote the story where they could to help spread the word and make it known that the SHF abuses children, deliberately provides dangerous misinformation, rejects professional medical advice and completely gets away with it. I thought that if it was discussed enough, perhaps some parents would get a chance to learn about what the SHF really is before they unknowingly submit their child to physical and mental abuse.
Interlude: Before I continue with the rest of this post, here are just a few short quotes from some of the kids who have contacted me over the last few months.
“Thank you so much for helping me to get the word out about this. I honestly believe it needs to be closed down. Children are being abused and parents robbed and no-one knows or cares.”
“I was a resident at SHF for 3 torturous years. And then I finally found the courage to run away. I have been trying to get that horrible place shut down for many years. They made our parents sign a waiver for corporal discipline, now I hear you can not be accepted unless your guardians/parents do so. they left bruises on my behind and didn’t care. I threw up the special meals and they made me eat another in its place. They force fed “their version” of Christianity down my throat. SHF is a cult. It needs to be shut down. Their main philosophy was “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Yeah, Beth and Trace Embry, let’s beat children into submission, that’s the “Christ-like” thing to do. Please help me and other former residents shut this place down.”
“I was a student there for two and a half years. Guess what? They would admit to brainwashing us when asked. “Of course we are brainwashing you! Brainwashing you in the blood of the lamb!” Gross!!
Anyway, while I was there my parents repeatedly requested I be taken to a dermatologist because of acne. Was I? No. Instead I went years later after I left the program. I had scars and the doctor said if I had been given the medication I needed years before then none of this would have happened. Also one morning I woke up unable to move my neck. The “nurse” gave me no explanation or evidence and just old me it would be ok if I wore a brace. I could not move my neck properly for about a month. If someone regardless of age requests to see a real and professional doctor, then they should be allowed and helped to do so. Anything else is putting the child in harms way and is irresponsible.
Parents paid thousands upon thousands of dollars for their children to read the Bible, eat beans, and be taught the world operates in ways it doesn’t.”
In response to my probing, the Shepherds Hill Farm put another blog entry online. They further denied reality and completely ignored the accusations of child abuse. They retracted none of their original false claims, made more claims about medication causing more harm, and they never apologized for supplying the public with dangerous “medical advice”. I added a comment in response to that entry. I went back to the blog a few hours later to see if the comment was still there, only to find that they had deleted all comments! They even deactivated the comment feature. Comments are now enabled again, but all of the comments criticising the farm have been removed. And it gets worse. They even deleted the blog entry that I was responding to, most likely because it was complete nonsense. Fortunately, I decided to save the entire page immediately after submitting my comment, so I still had the blog entry and my comment. Admittedly it wasn’t a great comment. It was very rushed and scattered all over the place, but here it is anyway. I quoted most of the original blog entry part-by-part and you can see their quotes labeled below.
SHF – “I deal with troubled teens and teens at risk all the time. Helping troubled teens is what I do.“After this, they sent me a few communications about how I am “demonic”, then began to completely ignore me. Since then I’ve seen former residents continue to try and educate others about the farm, only to be described as emotionally disturbed drug-abusers by the SHF. Thanks to the internet, former residents are finding others who shared similar experiences at the farm. As I mentioned earlier, the frequency of communications regarding abuse have increased lately, with more former residents contacting me. My next plan of action is to get these kids together in one place (online, at least) where they can share their experiences with each other, and maybe think about efficient and peaceful ways to warn parents about the SHF.
This does not mean you understand anhedonia or dopamine pathways. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you are right and the experts are wrong.
SHF – “And God is certainly using Shepherd’s Hill Farm to bring healing to struggling teens dealing with behavior issues and other issues, including ADD, ADHD, depression, bipolar, and yes, anhedonia.“
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You believe there is a god bringing healing to your farm in the form of “special meals” etc. But you do not know that this is “certainly” happening. Worse than useless, you are channeling action into prayer and faith. Some of these conditions require actual medicine, not stories.
SHF – “Secondly, you said anhedonia is a symptom of depression—as if the two couldn’t be mutually exclusive.”
You haven’t understood. Anhedonia is also caused by other things that can affect dopamine levels. Not only do I accept that, I even provided known examples. Watching TV and playing video games does not negatively affect dopamine levels or pathways. You can believe otherwise, but then you will be contradicting observable reality.
SHF – “Yes, anhedonia is a symptom of depression—just like bright red skin is a symptom of sunburn. But to say that having anhedonia means you must be suffering from depression is like saying bright red skin is sunburn. Further research might show that the sun wasn’t in the equation at all. Bright red skin could come from being embarrassed, a niacin overdose, a fever, a tanning bed, a welder—you name it.“
Yes, exactly like I said. The symptom of anhedonia could be caused by other conditions, such as schizophrenia for example. I’m glad you now class anhedonia as a symptom of known conditions, rather than a medical condition in itself.
SHF – “Next, you said that I described anhedonia as “basically describing ADD”. But, a cold can of juice can “basically” describe a sinus infection, or the flu.“
Anhedonia and ADD are completely different. So yes, it’s like claiming the flu and a container for drinks are the same thing. I agree. I don’t understand how this position doesn’t embarrass you.
SHF – “You go on to say that anhedonia is a SYMPTOM of depression. But, so are crying, sadness, and self-defeating thoughts. You don’t have to be depressed to experience any of the above.“
Oh dear. Clinically depressed people cry, but so do non-clinically depressed people, therefore anhedonia isn’t a symptom of depression. These are general symptoms of the human body during general emotional sadness. Anhedonia is a physiological reaction to low dopamine levels or obstruction of dopamine pathways. And can you please not say “you go on to say” as if it is my personal opinion that anhedonia is a SYMPTOM of depression and certain other medical conditions. It is the opinion of the world’s experts and anhedonia is classed as the symptom I describe it as by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). You are right that you don’t have to be depressed to experience anhedonia, but only because there are other conditions that affect your dopamine in the brain. And again, TV isn’t one of them.
SHF – “It appears that you are reducing the term to the biochemistry involved.“
Is there a problem with me “reducing” the symptom to what is causing the symptom? Reducing symptoms to the biochemistry involved is something doctors do everyday. It saves lives.
SHF – “You then go on to quote an “expert” in the field. Why haven’t you quoted the “expert” in the field I challenged you with from the beginning? His name is Dr. Archibald D. Hart, author of the book Thrilled to Death.“
You’ve obviously done no research into the field. Paul Keedwell MD isn’t well known because he wrote a book. He is one of the most respected mood disorder experts on the planet, and he actually uses physical evidence to get to the truth. Because of people like him, we now know that it is a fact that anhedonia is caused by reduced dopamine activity and nothing else. We also know what conditions cause it. We also know that TV does not cause reduced dopamine activity. Further, we know that crosswords do not increase dopamine activity, so your miracle cure of rejecting medication and playing board games fails unfortunately. I understand you are very used to following one single book on a subject in order to understand everything. But in the same way that your Bible is often wrong, you have to admit the possibility that this book is wrong if it claims anhedonia is a medical condition having nothing to do with dopamine levels. Every expert in the field and every published, peer-reviewed paper I can find on the subject contradicts what you are claiming.
SHF – “You quoted your guy, Paul Keedwell, as saying. “I believe that the presence of anhedonia defines depression. If one does not have anhedonia one is not depressed.” Then why give it two different names? Isn’t that like saying if one does not own a mustang, he does not own a Ford.“
Why give them two different names? Maybe because they are two different things? Depression is a medical condition, which does many things to us including reducing dopamine activity in the brain. Anhedonia is a physiological reaction to this reduced dopamine activity. We can’t call them the same thing, because they aren’t the same thing. Depression (A) causes reduced dopamine activity (B), which causes anhedonia (C). A leads to B which leads to C. A and C are not the same thing. Anhedonia always requires reduced dopamine activity, but it’s not always caused by depression, as I keep telling you. I believe it is generally accepted by most reasonable people that naming a medical condition and one of its symptoms as the same thing would be completely pointless and downright stupid. That’s why.
SHF – “After this, you attempt to discredit me by pitting my experience with teenagers in real time with the lab work of a scientist. I’ve taken the information from scientists and seen it work in real time. How many of your “scientists” have taken what I have EMPIRICALLY observed by actually working with teenagers in practical situations and plugged it into their equations? And this information is not only observed, but it is taken from the lips of the very teenagers we deal with.“
Excuse me, but it is also taken from the very lips of cured children that Allah can cure cancer. So, I take it you’re going to convert to Islam now? Yes? Scientists observe what they do, record it, submit it to be reviewed by others so the tests can be repeated, and then they are published for anyone to pick away at and look for holes. It’s a great process. Saves lives. Results in medications like the ones you are suggesting we reject. Let’s not forget that there are other things have come directly from the lips of the teenagers who attended your farm: the allegations of abuse you keep ignoring.
SHF – “You are certainly correct when you say that being a scientist doesn’t mean he automatically trumps me. A lot has to do with what you consider evidence. Isn’t it a bit naïve to limit reality and evidence only to what one can empirically observe? Empirically prove to me that you ever had a dream or an idea.“
We can empirically tell when someone is dreaming by monitoring brain activity. That’s how we know that dogs also dream, but lizards don’t. And this isn’t about limiting to what you can directly observe. This is about us already having observed that you are plain and simply wrong. Try and understand this, I’ll explain VERY simply.
FACT: Anhedona is caused by reduced dopamine activity. There are different ways this can happen though.
FACT: Depression is one of those medical conditions which have anhedonia as a symptom.
FACT: Schizophrenia and addiction to certain drugs also result in anhedonia, because they affect dopamine activity.
FACT: You are suggesting that people with anhedonia (people with reduced dopamine activity) reject their medication that will make them better, and instead do things that will not help their dopamine activity at all.
Which part do you not understand?
As for some PhD you can’t remember at some show, it simply isn’t good enough. Firstly, the fact that he has some PhD tells me nothing. It could be a theological doctorate for all I know, a little like the degrees belonging to staff of SHF. And you say he talked about helping kids who are addicted to video games and the like, but didn’t specifically discuss anhedonia. Do you think I’m claiming that people can’t be addicted to TV etc? Sure we can. It doesn’t cause anhedonia though and this is a demonstrable fact.
You kindly request I read the suggested book. I kindly request you read any medical journals discussing anhedonia, the published material showing how anhedonia is caused, and take some time to learn who the experts actually are. I can’t believe you brushed Paul Keedwell off as “your guy”. Since you deal with mood disorders on a daily basis, I’m shocked you haven’t heard of him!
Anhedonia is caused by medical conditions that require medication. You’ve suggested that if a teenager has anhedonia, he/she shouldn’t take medication. This means you are suggesting that people who are clinically depressed, people who are schizophrenic and people addicted to certain heavy drugs should not use medication in their recovery, despite the fact that the medications are essential for a safe and healthy recovery. Medication is required to help with reduced dopamine activity. Crosswords do not help. You offer no apology or retraction for this misinformation.
Handling mood disorders and other medical problems, I would hope that you pay a subscription that allows you access to medical journals. If not, please try and do some research even on something like Google Scholar. You can potentially kill people here by suggesting teens don’t take their medication.
You also didn’t comment on the abuse that takes place at the farm itself. I am receiving many communications now from people who report physical and mental abuse at Shepherds Hill Farm. Even in your communications to me alone you have explained that people in need of medication don’t need medication, and that there is definitely a god and he is definitely healing people through beans. I’m told you teach much worse at your farm, which is tragic. And I note no apology for providing misinformation regarding medical issues. You say that the way you interpret the evidence is that I’m wrong, and that medication isn’t required and crosswords etc will fix conditions causing anhedonia. Well, we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Reality says you’re wrong. Your god has apparently created this reality in which certain medications heal certain medical conditions. If you are going to go against the evidence, facts, and reality, while siding with man-made religion, you’re choosing man over god. So please stop pretending you are doing gods will. Your supposed god’s reality indicates that reduced dopamine activity is to blame for anhedonia and that people with medical conditions resulting in this symptom require medication. You’re completely free to deny reality, your god’s own creation, but please realize that potentially inflicting pain on other individuals and deliberately providing misinformation that reduces health is simply immoral.
As for a god allowing millions to starve to death in Africa, yet take time to heal someone on your farm through beans, isn’t it odd that your god only heals things that could possibly heal naturally or with medication? No amputees growing their limbs back or anything. Just good old regular recoveries we see everyday. Do let me know if your God BeansTM cure something that can’t be cured minus a deity.
Conclusion: you are demonstrably wrong, you are openly admitting not having done adequate research, and are not apologizing for providing dangerous misinformation. You also provide no explanation for the accounts I am receiving from teens who claim to be abused at the farm.
Further reading: I would suggest looking up the Great Prayer Experiment and other studies showing the uselessness of channeling action into prayer.”
This article was found at:
An affidavit detailing abuses at Shepherd's Hill Farm can be read at:
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