Indicates Rehab’s Benefits
Because cults can be
oppressive environments, and because people who leave cults are frequently
disillusioned and overwhelmed by the challenge of adjusting to mainstream
society, former cult members experience a high level of distress. Research
studies suggest that more than one-third and possibly more than one-half of
those who have left cultic groups have been detrimentally affected by their
cultic experience. One researcher has written: “Members may be harmed in that
they lose their psychological autonomy and, frequently, their financial assets.
Furthermore, the group’s partial-to-total disconnection from mainline society
deprives members of the opportunity to learn from the varied experiences that a
normal life provides. Members may lose irretrievable years in a state of
‘maturational arrest.’ In some cases they undergo psychiatric breakdowns and/or
suffer from physical disease and injury.” A survey of 350 ex-cultists from 48
different groups found that former members suffered from residual effects of
their cult experience lasting from 43.8 months to 139 months, with an average
duration of 81.5 months. These effects included such things as depression,
loneliness, guilt, anger, fear, humiliation, disorientation, “floating” in and
out of altered states, nightmares, and an inability to break mental rhythms of
chanting, meditation, or speaking in tongues. Deprogrammed subjects appeared to
recover more quickly. Clinicians who have worked extensively with former
cultists say that most require six months to two years to adjust adequately.
Some require much more time.
Ex-cultists often need so
much time to readjust because so many areas of their lives are adversely
affected simultaneously. Most cultists are implicitly, if not explicitly,
encouraged to burn all interpersonal bridges to the mainstream world. When they
leave the cult, they are usually shunned by their cult “friends” and met with
puzzlement, hurt, and anger by the old friends and relatives they had ignored
for so long. Because of their devotion to the cult’s “cause,” many cultists
abandon school, career plans, and even functioning careers in order to serve the
group. Leaving a group that appeared to provide spiritual meaning will often
leave ex-cultists feeling spiritually empty or spiritually raped. And, in part
because they had been indoctrinated in the cult to believe that the group was
always right, many former cultists consider themselves to be failures or
seriously inadequate. Thus, former cultists often have interpersonal,
vocational, spiritual, and intrapersonal conflicts and deficiencies.
Although it can certainly be
helpful, weekly psychotherapy may be insufficient for many former cultists. That
is why many have attended special residential treatment programs. The Wellspring
Retreat and Resource Center, for example, offers a comprehensive program of
in‑depth psychological assessment and treatment usually lasting two weeks.
Clients receive a full psychological test battery and assessment interview.
They participate in workshops that address common postcult problems, e.g.,
depression, grieving and loss, establishing career goals, spiritual issues. All
clients receive extensive one-on-one therapy. And all clients receive an
intensive education on psychological manipulation, thought reform programs, and
the cult conversion process.
The term “rehabilitation” has
been applied to this process because, like persons recovering from physical
injuries, ex-cultists require an intensive program in order to bring them back
at least to the level at which they once functioned. Also, as with the
physically injured, most ex-cultists were relatively normal before they were
seduced into a destructive group.
Wellspring has conducted the
only formal outcome evaluation study with the ex-cult rehabilitation population.
The results are encouraging. Wellspring clients are routinely administered the
Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI) at intake and, in most cases, at a
six-month follow-up. The improvement in all clinical sub-scales, including
dysthymia and anxiety, was dramatic, with the exception of the psychotic
delusion scale, which was normal at the time of admission. Treatment
effectiveness was not enhanced, on the Millon inventory, if clients sought
further psychiatric care once they left Wellspring. Wellspring research
indicates, then, that additional psychotherapy following postcult
rehabilitation does not appreciably reduce the ex-members’ symptomatology. The
study, however, did not include consideration of psychotherapy gains through
work with mental health professionals trained to recognize and deal with
cult-related symptoms and dynamics. Such work may greatly aid the recovery
To conclude, an intensive
postcult rehabilitation program may be a cost-effective treatment for former
cult members. By clarifying the cult-related issues troubling the client, it can
lay the groundwork for a more productive psychotherapeutic relationship.
Destructive Cultism: Questions and Answers. Bonita Springs, FL:
American Family Foundation, 1982, 7.
Conway, F. et al.
Information Disease: Effects of Covert Induction and Deprogramming. Update
10 (3) 1986, 63-65 and Update, 10 (3). 45-57