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Counseling and the Cult Member 1

Counseling and the Cult Member:

Issues for the Practicing Counselor

Jeremie Lee Kinney

CHD 615

University of North Alabama

Paul Baird, Ph. D.

Counseling and the Cult Member 2


The purpose of this paper is to provide information on the topic of cults in the counseling

field. Presented is information on the terminology used in the cult studies area, a description of

the process by which a person enters into a cult, strategies for counselors to use in the exit

counseling process, and ethical concerns when dealing with ex-cult members. It is the authors

intent to provide a broad overview of the concerns in the cult counseling field. Others are

encouraged to read further into the particular topics covered in this paper.
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Counseling and the Cult Member:

Issues for the Practicing Counselor

Where does society find its boundaries between religions and cults? At what point does

religious activity take on the aspects of control and manipulation? When does ones belief

become harmful? How does the counselor address the needs of an exiting cult member without

blurring the lines even further? The answers to these question are gray at best and only recently

have seen extensive study and research.


The term “cult” is defined by the Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary (2006) as

1. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also its body of adherents;

2. a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator;
3. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book);
especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad; a usually small
group of people characterized by such devotion

According to Rosedale and Langone(2006) the definition of “cult” as it applies to

counseling and society has evolved into additional meanings to include religions regarded as

unconventional or a blind following to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.

Recently the acronym NRM has been applied to “new religious movements” . These

groups distinguish themselves from cults in that they take on qualities of standard mainstream

religions and are not met with much if any social resistance.

In past years the term that was used to describe the counseling process as it applied to an
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cult member was deprogramming. Deprogramming is defined as providing a client with accurate

and topical information about the cult group and showing to the client how he or she has lost the

ability to make personal decisions on their own (Singer, 1978).

Deprogramming in the late 1970's began to take on a negative connotation. The public

opinion of the deprogrammer was someone who used force and coercive techniques to get the

cult member to denounce the cult and their beliefs. Many times the popular opinion of

deprogramming made it akin to brainwashing and was not looked upon favorably. This brought

rise to the “new breed” of counselors who began to work with more rigid confines and more

supervision. This new progressive movement was termed “exit counseling”. Many believe that

the two terms, deprogramming and exit counseling, can be used interchangeably and Margaret

Singer, author of Combating Cult Mind Control, argues that “In fact, 'deprogramming' is in many

ways a more accurate description of the process of getting the cult member to recognize what has

happened to him or her”(1978).

Today the terms 'exit counseling', 'strategic intervention therapy', 'cult intervention' and

'though reform consultation' essentially describe the same process, an intervention designed to

get an individual to leave a cult.

Cult Membership Process

Often times persons who join cults are in a process of transition in their lives. They have

lost some sense of self identity and find it within the cult group. According to Schwartz and

Kazlow() cults provide youth who are gaining independence financially and emotionally a means

to separate themselves from their family group and gain total independence from their family

without loosing their support system. This is ironic in that the independence gained from the
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family is independence ultimately lost to the cult. Older adults, however, seem to make their

entry into cults via major life changes such as divorce, death, illness, or other life issues that

bring stress and disorder to their lives. These older adults are appealing to cults because they

have larger financial foundations and are not as closely attached to their family as young adults


The progression into a cult can often be characterized by a major role change in the

members life. For instance the cult member may progress from a role of dominance in

mainstream society to a role of subservience in the cult society. It can also be said that often

times the cult member begins to distance themselves from their previous social and family

connections, establishing a new identity within the cult (Robinson and Frye, 1997).

Sirkin (1990) identifies five stages of cult affiliation: hooking, the stage where

individuals make contact with the cult and find interest in the cult; joining, where the individual

being to accept the cult's philosophy; intensification, the cult's beliefs and activities are seen as

superior to that of the mainstream, which is seen as bad or evil, and it is at this state where

mainstream families being to see detachment; social disengagement, a cult lifestyle is built upon

the ideal that the cult is superior and all others should be shunned along with previous family

ties; and realignment, where the identity structure of the member is finalized within the cult


Many factors have been identified as playing a role in the development of someone who

becomes a cult member. Parents setting high unattainable standards may encourage a child to

young adult to seek acceptance and assurance outside the family group. Also, families who

substitute criticism for encouragement are seen to have higher rates of cult membership amongst
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their children. Finally, those families who place a higher importance on family values above

personal values (seeking others' approval before yourself) have been characterized as having

higher rate of cult membership (Robinson and Frye, 1997).

Counseling Strategies

Cult membership can run the gamut of ages, but is most often seen between the ages of

18 to 25 (Robinson and Frye, 1997). Influences that affect the members' entry into a cult can be

family dynamics, religious values and the individual's susceptibility (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1979).

The counselor has the responsibility of identifying symptoms and developing appropriate


All forms of counseling an exiting cult member should include respect for the client, non-

violence in the counseling method, and an autonomous informed choice and consent of the

client. Because most interaction that a counselor has in this area occurs after cult affiliation,

these recommendations are focused on those clients who have exited a cult.

Counselors who are working with an exiting cult member are in effect dealing with two

clients; the ex-cult member and the family of that person. Care should be taken to not violate the

confidentiality of the client, but it is encouraged that the family be involved in the process of exit


The two main needs of a client who is exiting a cult are medical and psychological.

Medical needs should be addressed immediately. It is encouraged that the client is referred for a

complete medical examination. When the health of the client is established and acceptable the

counselor should progress onto dealing with the clients psychological needs.
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The family of the client should identify inappropriate or harmful patterns of behavior and

help set goals for establishing the new lifestyle of the client. That is not to say that the family

should be involved in the formation of the lifestyle goals of the client, but that they should be a

support system to help ensure the success of those goals in the client's life. It is at this point that

the counselor must work at establishing lines of communication between the client and the

family. Often times the ex-cult member will have broken all ties and lines of communication

with the family as prescribed by the cult. The issues that surrounded the family prior to cult

membership needs to be addressed and resolved in order to establish efficient communication.

The counselor should not neglect those issues that arose during the cult membership as they can

also impede the intervention process.

The counselor should appear at all times as open to the idea of cult membership. It is

important that the counselor show that the client has a right to choose his or her own direction in

life and that one of the choices is cult membership, however harmful it may be. Acceptance and

free will are important aspects of the exit counseling strategy as the client must feel at ease and

welcomed with the counselor (Robinson and Frye, 1997).

Clients join cults because of legitimate needs. Those needs can include acceptance,

affirmation, security, purpose in life, and other emotional deficiencies. Those needs are

omnipresent with counseling an exiting cult member. It should be the goal of the counselor to

help the client to identify the needs and develop a plan of action to help meet them. The

counselor should remember that the client has autonomy in this decision. External support

systems are vital at this point in the counseling process and should be brought forth to the client

as an effective method of transition (Robinson and Bradley, 1998).

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Ethical Concerns for Counselors

As with any counseling practice, the ultimate mantra is “do no harm”. It is important that

the counselor does not allow personal beliefs to hinder the intervention. In the exit counseling

field today specialization has developed with respect to the counseling process. This can include

counselors specializing in particular techniques and others who push a particular religious

perspective (Giambalvo, 1996). Care must be taken that when formulating an intervention that

the counselor does not allow bias or prejudice to enter into the sessions.

Attention must be paid to the time frame of the counseling process. The counselor should

not push a client into any decision based on financial or emotional needs. Once again, autonomy

is important in the exit counseling process. If the client feels lead in any way he/she may being to

superimpose the experiences of control and manipulation from within the cult onto the



Counseling the exiting cult members is a difficult task at best. The needs of the client can

reach beyond the scope of the counselor and should be addressed in order of importance to the

client. The clients family is a vital component of the intervention formulation and should be dealt

with as if it were another client itself. The counselor should never neglect the autonomy of the

client and should always appear open and receptive to the clients ideas and wishes. Only with

autonomy will the client move from the restrictive ideas of the cult to the more opportunistic

ideas of the family and mainstream society. Care should always be taken to address the reason

that surrounded the client;s joining the cult in the first place and the counselor should remember

that even more issues can evolve from the membership itself. The counselor should never allow
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any personal religious or ethical belief to enter into the counseling arena when dealing with a ex-

cult member. Ethics in counseling are important in any counseling field, but of vital importance

in this area.
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Langone, M.D., & Martin, P. (1993). Deprogramming, exit counseling, and ethics: Clarifying
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Singer, M. (1978). Therapy with ex-cult members. Journal of the National Association of
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Robinson, B., & Frye, E. (1997). Cult affiliation and disaffiliation: Implications for counseling.
Counseling & Values, 41(2), 166. Retrieved Monday, April 24th, 2006 from the
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Schwartz, L.L., & Kaslow, F.W. (1979). Religious cults, the individual and the family. Journal
of Marital and Family Therapy, 5, 15-25.

Sirkin, M. I. (1990). Cult Involvement: A systems approach to assessment and treatment.

Psychotherapy, 27(1), I 16-123

Robinson, B., & Bradley, L. (1998). Adaptation to transition: Implications for working with cult
members. Journal of Humanistic Education & Development, 36(4), 212. Retrieved
Monday, April 24th, 2006 from the Professional Development Collection database.

Gianbalvo, C. (1996). Ethical standards for thought reform consultants. Cultic Studies Journal,
3(1). Retrieved on on January 19th, 2006 from Http://