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

Abstract 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. Definitions 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

Counseling and the Cult Member 4 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

Counseling and the Cult Member 5 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 are. 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 itself. 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

Counseling and the Cult Member 6 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 interventions. All forms of counseling an exiting cult member should include respect for the client, nonviolence 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 counseling. 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.

Counseling and the Cult Member 7 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).

Counseling and the Cult Member 8 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 intervention. Conclusion 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

Counseling and the Cult Member 9 any personal religious or ethical belief to enter into the counseling arena when dealing with a excult member. Ethics in counseling are important in any counseling field, but of vital importance in this area.

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References Rosedale, H.L., & Langone, M.D. (2006). On using the tern “Cult”. Retrieved April 19th, 2006 from Http://www.csj.org/infoserv_aff/aff_termcultp2.htm Langone, M.D., & Martin, P. (1993). Deprogramming, exit counseling, and ethics: Clarifying the confusion. Cult Observer, 4 Retrieved March 9th, 2006 from Google Scholar Singer, M. (1978). Therapy with ex-cult members. Journal of the National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals, 9, 14-19 Robinson, B., & Frye, E. (1997). Cult affiliation and disaffiliation: Implications for counseling. Counseling & Values, 41(2), 166. Retrieved Monday, April 24th, 2006 from the Professional Collection Database 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://hometown.aol.com/carol2180/ ethical.htm

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