Psychiatric and Mental Health Update
A Review of Press Reports on Cultism and Unethical Social
The following is based on a presentation made
at the 8th Annual U.S. Psychiatric & Mental Health Congress in New York City, November
16-19, 1995. The author is Executive Director of AFF, publisher of The Cult Observer,
and Editor of AFF's
Research indicates that although a large majority of cult
members eventually leave their groups, many, perhaps most, experience high levels of
psychological distress after leaving and frequently seek mental health counseling.
A factor analytic study of former cult members' experiences
has led to the development of a "Group Psychological Abuse Scale,"
which in turn has found four factors which characterize cultic environments of all types
compliance, expolitation, mind control, and
anxious dependency which determine whether and to what extent an individual may be harmed
by the experience.
Theories of Involvement
Why people join cults, why they leave, why they often
experience distress upon leaving, how they can be helped are questions that have not been
extensively researched, although three general models of cult conversion and departure can
be identified, with the answers to these questions varying among the models.
First is the psychodynamic model, which presumes that
cultic groups fulfill unconscious needs of its members. Second is the deliberative model
(popular among theologians and sociologists), which presumes that people join and leave
cultic groups because of their cognitive evaluations, however faulty, of the group. Third
is the thought reform model, which presumes that cultic environments lure and hold on to
members through high levels of psychological manipulation. An integrative model proposes
that the degree of deliberation in a group involvement is a function of the psychological
neediness of the individual and manipulativeness of the environment. When neediness and
manipulativeness are low, deliberation will be highest. Those harmed by a cultic
involvement are most likely to come from highly manipulative groups. About one-third
appear to have had psychological disorders before joining the cult, but most appear to
have been relatively normal psychologically.
Treatment of former cult members should include a
cult-sensitive assessment. The clinician should appreciate the degree to which negative
emotional reactions can be a function psychological trauma experienced in the cult, and
should not rush to a psychodynamic interpretation that focuses on preexisting disorders.
However, even though the cult environment is potent, the psychological, family, and
social/vocational history of the individual should be investigated thoroughly. It is also
important to assess the psycho-educational needs of patients, that is, the degree to which
they understand cultic manipulations, as well as academic and vocational skills (cultic
isolation can put many ex-members years behind their peers in educational and vocational
Elements of treatment
Treatment should also include the following:(1) education about psychological
manipulation and an application of this knowledge to the patient's cult experience; (2)
active management of day-to-day crises, which are especially common in recently exited
person; (3) a reconnecting to the pre-cult past; (4) support in the resolution of grief
and guilt related to lost time, lost friendships, and lost innocence; (5) education and
mobilization of the patient's social support network; and (6) ultimately, a cognitive
integration of the positive and negative aspects of the cult experience into the patient's
emerging post-cult identity. Pharmocotherapy can often help former cultists, especially
those experiencing severe depression, but psychiatrists should be more cautious in making
the decision to prescribe and more vigilant in follow-up when a cult involvement is
evident. Former cult members' symptoms are often much more a function of psychological
trauma than of long-standing psychopathology.
members who consult mental health professionals because of a loved one's cult
involvement should not be dismissed as overprotective, enmeshed, or otherwise
dysfunctional. Most family members seeking help are relatively normal, although many
experience considerable anxiety and anguish in response to the cult involvement. Family
members typically need information about cults, communication skills training, add
assistance in dividing a strategy to help their loved one make an informed reevaluation of
the cult involvement. Such persons should be referred to cult experts.
Treatment of youth involved in Satanism, or ritual
abuse survivors, though similar in some ways to the treatment of cult victims, is
different in others. Satanically involved youth tend to be disturbed psychologically and
often are solitary in their satanic dabbling. These youth appear to gain a compensatory,
though illusory, feeling of power through Satanism. Treatment should focus on helping them
build a more reality-based self-esteem. The treatment of ritualistic abuse survivors
(children and adults) is fraught with controversy, especially where recovered memories are
involved. Based on current lack of research data, the recommendations of the American
Psychiatric Association's Statement on Memories of Sexual Abuse
appears to be the most balanced approach to dealing with ritual abuse cases.
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