Overview: Mental Health Professionals
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Mental health professionals are prone to make a number of errors in cult-related cases.
First, they may assume that a group involvement is merely a sign of normal adolescent rebellion and identity searching, and that “this too will pass.” Although this point of view is sometimes true, it is false often enough to make the assumption unwise. Don’t dismiss families who may seek your help. Their concerns may indeed be warranted. And don’t overlook the possible deleterious role of a cult involvement in patients who seek your help for depression or other psychological disorders.
The second common error mental health professionals make is to assume that a group involvement reflects unconscious individual psychopathology and/or a dysfunctional family system. There is no doubt that many who join cults have pre-existing psychological problems and/or come from highly dysfunctional families. But many have normal psychological and family backgrounds. Those who were troubled and those who were not troubled may both be affected—though perhaps in different ways—by a highly manipulative and exploitative group environment. In one of our research studies, former group members preferred the terms “psychological trauma” and “psychological abuse” to describe their experiences, rather than “cult,” “mind control,” or other terms. So don’t focus on the person’s or family’s past to such a high degree that you overlook possibly traumatic effects of an abusive group experience.
A third common error, made also in other settings, is to succumb to confirmatory bias, that is, the common human tendency to notice, seek, and/or be alert to information that supports our initial impressions or formal assessment. Professionals should, to the contrary, notice, seek, and/or be alert to information or behavior that is inconsistent with the professional’s initial assessment. The findings of an assessment are more akin to a scientific theory to be tested rigorously than to a “fact” upon which to build future investigations. This is especially true in cultic cases, which often involve high levels of the involved person’s self-deception as well as deceptions perpetrated by group leaders. The reality often isn’t what it at first appears to be.
Finally, don’t approach a cult-related case as a strange, deeply mysterious phenomenon requiring esoteric expertise. Cult-related problems are, at their heart, consequences of unusually powerful social influences interacting with the spectrum of human personalities, needs, and goals. They are similar to other situations where social influence adversely affects a person’s or a family’s functioning. Some have pointed out similarities between cult cases and certain instances of spouse abuse, hostage experiences, and abuse within dysfunctional families. Professionals with knowledge and experience dealing with these kinds of problems may frequently apply what they know to cult situations. We advise these professionals, however, to supplement their expertise through readings available on this site and contact with professionals who specialize in treating cult-related problems (see profiles of helping professionals or attend one of our conferences).
Although our capacity to give individualized responses to inquiries is limited, we do what we can and, when appropriate and feasible, refer inquirers to people who may be able to give additional assistance. The ICSA network includes experienced helping professionals, some of whom run support groups
If this service interests you, contact us