Point of View
What is the difference between a psychotherapist and a thought-reform consultant? Which one should a family use to speak to a cult member?
The licensing for therapists differs from state to state; but usually psychotherapists are either psychiatrists (MD) or they have a master’s degree or a doctoral degree (PhD) in psychology, social work, psychiatric nursing, counseling, or a related field. In addition, in most states therapists have been certified by the state after they pass an exam; the certification proves that they have a certain number of supervised hours of training. I should also note that having a license doesn’t mean that a psychotherapist is a good fit for you or your family, so it may be wise to interview more than one prospective therapist.
Thought-reform consultants may or may not have formal training in psychotherapy (most do not), but most of them have apprenticed with experienced thought-reform consultants and are former cult members themselves. They are aware of the techniques destructive cults use to manipulate their victims; and they have access to videos, testimonials, and articles that they employ during the intervention to help cult victims recognize the techniques that may have been used on them. Thought-reform consultants utilize a psychoeducational approach in intervening with cult members. Because there is no licensing for thought-reform consultants, it is wise to ask for references and to interview prospective consultants before you hire one.
In a recent conference held in Philadelphia and sponsored by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), experienced therapists and thought-reform consultants discussed their approaches. The consensus was that psychotherapists may be of help to family members when they are contemplating an intervention, and also after their family member has decided to leave the cult. Thought-reform consultants are of the most help to the family when its members are planning for an intervention, and during the intervention itself.
Before the intervention, therapists can help family members decide whether an intervention is the best alternative and discuss their expectations and fears, and then help the family prepare for the reintegration of the former cultist into the family unit. They can explore questions such as “What do we do if the intervention is not successful?”, “When should we talk to our family member about her life in the cult?”, and “Is it okay for him to go back to the campus where he was recruited?” I don’t believe that therapists who specialize in cult-related issues are a necessity for working with a former cult member or with the family after the intervention; but it is preferable for the family to work with someone with this experience before the intervention because that person will be able to answer the family’s questions with some expertise.
If family members have decided that the cult member requires the help of a thought-reform consultant, and they want help for this intervention, the therapist’s expertise is probably of less value. The thought-reform consultant will help the family strategize about how it will attempt to convince the cult member to meet with the thought-reform consultant, or how family members will speak to the cult member about the cult. The thought-reform consultant will explain to the family what will be involved in the intervention and whether members should play a role in it.
During the intervention, the thought-reform consultant is the primary individual working with the family and the cult member. A therapist may be called upon at this time to help to explain the underlying dynamics of the cultic situation to the cult member; but, in my experience, the thought-reform consultant is usually well versed in these dynamics and in how to explain them. A therapist may be consulted or asked to speak to the individual if specific psychological issues arise during the intervention.
After the intervention, the former cult member can often benefit from individual or group therapy, and the family may need help adjusting to the dynamics of the postcult situation. A good therapist can be helpful at this time. As I mentioned previously, I do not believe that former cult members have to see therapists who specialize in this field as long as the chosen therapists can work with the former cultists to explore the situation without preconceived notions and without blaming the victim. Instead, the therapists need to be open to learning the impact of cult dynamics and to exploring with the former cultists how they were affected by the cult.