This paper discusses the history, objectives, and methods of a network of mental health professionals concerned about cults. The paper is based on a presentation to the 2007 Annual Conference of International Cultic Studies Association, which took place in Brussels, Belgium
Who We Are—The Südwest Network
The main basis for the Südwest Network is the insight that we cannot work alone. So we decided to establish some kind of a network in a rather small region in the southwest part of Germany, which allows us to communicate very closely.
Our network includes individuals who feel obliged to help people regarding their problems with destructive cults but don’t want to be part of a group of people. They agree to work together with other people, but not too closely.
Two groups belong to the Netzwerk Südwest.Ausstieg (Abandoning) is an association of former Jehovah’s Witnesses, and SINUS is a group of about 60 members in the conurbation of Frankfurt.
A professional advisory centre in Freiburg—Parapsychological Beratungsstelle—is the only member of the network that is working professionally and concentrates on a special subject, questions related to parapsychology.
The local centre is the Odenwälder Wohnhof, a very special and unique place in which people had the opportunity to live for a certain time in order to readjust after their time in a destructive cult. Unfortunately this place had to close down because its financial support ended. The former leader of this institution, Inge Mamay, is continuing her work in another capacity.
Working As Professionally As Possible
The following list of “essentials” will help us all be as professional as possible as we offer help.
Essential 1: How to Become Knowledgeable
Of course, everybody started with some kind of knowledge, most of us with the experiences we gained in destructive cults by ourselves or in dealing with other people and their bad experiences. Although this is a fine starting point, it is not enough.
When we decided to establish a network, we quickly came to the conclusion that our offerings of help should be as professional as possible. We carried out extensive further education. We invited well known specialists and found a way to finance the education.
We met in the Wohnhof for six weekends over a three-year period to learn as much as possible about the following subjects:
- A general view of the most important destructive cults;
- How cults abused unusual experiences;
- Psychological problems;
- Juridical problems;
- How to work together with the politicians.
Between 20 and 30 persons took part in these meetings. That means that members of our network can refer to a lot of people who have the skills to help others.
After these three years of training, we decided to continue with this fundamental work and offer once a year an ongoing education for our Netzwerk Südwest. Not surprisingly, one of the most important results of this training is that we unveiled what we did know. Therefore we are steadily looking for other specialists and we are keeping in touch with them on a constant basis.
Essential 2: Knowing People Who Know More Than We Do
This part of our work is very important. Whereas we are constantly trying to improve our knowledge (see later), we know that as voluntarily working people we depend on specialists. So we try steadily to find specialized advisers.
We need three main kinds of specialists:
- Professional advisers. We are staying in contact with professional advisers. In Germany we have state facilities and church facilities. The churches in Germany are investing money to establish professional church advisors. We maintain regular contact with them.
- Psychologists who have experience treating people leaving a cult.
- Lawyers who have gained experience with problems relating to cults; for example, to deal with questions of custody rights.
Another group of specialists is very important for us: politicians. We invite them, we inform them, and we consult with them if there are problems. It is very important for us to know them personally.
Essential 3: Steadily “Marketing”
One of our main efforts is to make our offerings of help known to the public. We do this by:
- Setting up and maintaining Websites. It is very important that you or somebody you know have computer skills. He/she must be able to maintain Websites and to create key words in a certain way that somebody who is looking for help will be able to discover your Website fast.
- Participating in public events. If it is possible, we take part in public events in order to inform people that they can find help in our Netzwerk. So we take part in big events of churches or the state or in central meetings of self-help groups.
- Giving information to the public and institutions, for example, by offering them our flyers.
- Presenting our work in public schools by lecturing. Students or teachers sometimes request information and/or lectures.
- Essential 4: Money
Of course, none of us earns money by helping other people. But some money is necessary in order to operate. How does one get it? Not everybody in our network has the possibility of getting money, especially those who are working alone and are not linked to a group.
- The group SINUS gets annual fees from their members. Not very much, but it is at least a small basis for operating. In any case we are looking steadily for other possibilities.
- Sometimes we get donations from people whom we have helped.
- The regional government is helping us by giving money from a fund connected to the national lottery.
- Every year we get some money from a church. The church is also supporting us by offering rooms for our meetings.
- Essential 5: How to Motivate the Volunteers
The people who give their time to help others sometimes experience various degrees of burnout.
It is important to motivate not only people who were members of a destructive cult, but also people who are just interested in this work. Often the former members of cults become tired and just don’t want to continue. If people take part in the work of an association of people who are not affected directly by personal experiences, there is a bigger chance that these workers will continue to be involved for a longer period of time.
In any way, as volunteers, take care of your comrade-in-arms.
- Give them the feeling that their depressing experiences may be helpful for others.
- Organize meetings that not only deal with the problematic questions but also give opportunities to laugh. “SINUS,” for example, organizes every year a humorous event during carnival season.
- Organize your meetings in a way that allows time for small talk. The best way is to spend a weekend together in a place which does not allow you to spend the night in your own home. To spend an evening together, to have a breakfast together, to have a walk together—this is indispensable to building relationships. I remember very well the first meeting we held with some other groups, especially when we met in the evening in the bar where we could joke and laugh and forget all the unpleasant experiences most of us had had.