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DSM-IV Religious and Spiritual Problems

LESSON 2.4 New Religious Movements and Cults

Description Associated Clinical problemsTreatmentCase ExamplesWWW Library

Participation in cults has been claimed to:

break up families
brainwash people to gain and hold them as members
cause irreparable psychological damage
Cult Experience: Psychological Abuse, Distress, Personality Characteristics, and Changes in Personal Relationships Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998

But membership in cults isn't uniformly oppressive and detrimental to mental health. A comprehensive review of the recent literature found good evidence that some of them are helpful to their adherents [1] Vaughan [(2]also points out that many individuals who joined and then left destructive groups reported that the experience contributed to their wisdom and maturity through the process of empowering a sense of having met the challenge by restoring their integrity. For the vast majority, such "radical religious departures" are part of adolescent or young adult identity exploration. Also since over 90% of persons who join new religious groups leave within two years, Stephen Post,MD points out that "if brainwashing goes on, it is extremely ineffective" (p. 373).
Stephen Post,MD, Psychiatry Psychiatry and ethics: the problematics of respect for religious meanings.Cult Med Psychiatry 1993 Sep;17(3):363-83

Dr. Post also points out the need to distinguish socially controversial new religious movements (NRMs) from cults, even though distressed families have pressured mental health professionals to assess the mental state of recruits to such sects. While carrying a negative connotation in the mental health field, cult also carries the non pejorative meaning of a grouping of people for some religious purpose. All religions originally began as cults, and however mainstream they have eventually become, the major world religions were originally perceived as a threat to established customs and values.

It is also important to remember that the Peoples Temple church which was responsible for the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana was a mainline congregation of a group called Disciples of Christ. At the time it had about one million members. They were members of the National Council of Churches. One of its lay leaders was a prominent person in the California Council of Churches. This group became identified as a cult only after the death of the members who were in Guyana. New Religious Movement is the term that sociologists often use to refer to small religious groups that are not destructive.

Nevertheless, some genuinely dangerous and destructive groups do arise under the banner of religion. A recent example is the Branch Davidians.

Essay on Definition of Cult by Michael Langone,PhD

The Cult Threat: Real or Imagined Gordon Melton



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Associated Clinical Problems
Nine factors have been associated with recruitment into cults:

a) generalized ego-weakness and emotional vulnerability
b) propensities toward dissociative states
c) tenuous, deteriorated, or nonexistent family relations and support systems
d) inadequate means of dealing with exigencies of survival
e) history of severe child abuse or neglect
f) exposure to idiosyncratic or eccentric family patterns
g) proclivities toward or abuse of controlled substances
h) unmanageable and debilitating situational stress and crises
i) intolerable socioeconomic conditions.
Factors related to susceptibility and recruitment by cults by Curtis JM, Curtis MJ. Psychol Rep 1993 Oct;73(2):451-60

It can be difficult for mental health professionals to determine what is a cult. In popular jargon "cult" carries the implication that the group uses intimidation, coercion, and indoctrination to systematically recruit, initiate, and influence inductees.

Distinguishing between religious nonconformity and mental disorders is an issue of cultural competence. The first clinical concern is assessing whether the group shows the signs of spiritual group pathology that distinguish a misguided cult from wholesome spiritual communities. Wellwood [3]lists these characteristics of pathological communities: :

The leader has total power to validate or negate the self-worth of the devotees, and uses this power extensively
The group is held together by allegiance to a cause, a mission, and ideology
The leader keeps his followers in line by manipulating emotions of hope and fear
"Groupthink" is used to knit followers together
Cult leaders are usually self-styled prophets who have not studied with great teachers or undergone lengthy training or discipline

In 1989, the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Psychiatry and Religion called upon psychiatrists to help temper the anti-cult fanaticism that often afflicts a distressed family. Yet mental health professionals have been under pressure since the early 1980's, after the Jonestown massacre, to sanction the forcible

deprogramming and involuntary hospitalization of religious seekers who were 'turning East'.
Post SG Psychiatry and ethics: the problematics of respect for religious meanings. Cult Med Psychiatry 1993 Sep;17(3):363-83

"Exit counseling," which is less coercive, has largely replaced "deprogramming."

Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion by Michael D. Langone, PhD and Paul Martin, PhD

Vaughan [2] has described a psychotherapeutic approach that examines the psychological consequences of joining a group that purportedly offers spiritual self-realization. This client centered approach does not evaluate the relative merit of alternative spiritual practices or try to determine whether the "teacher" is a true spiritual authority. She points out that individuals may have any of a number of motivations for joining a group, ranging from difficulty supporting themselves, to loneliness, to actualizing their potential by progressing along a path of spiritual development. In therapy with someone who has left, or who is considering joining or leaving a NRM or cult, the client could be asked to consider the following questions:

What attracts me to this person?
Am I attracted to his or her power, showmanship, cleverness, achievements, glamour, ideas?
Am I motivated by fear or love?
Is my response primarily physical excitement, emotional activation, intellectual stimulation, or intuitive resonance?
What would persuade me to trust him/her more than myself?
Am I looking for a parent figure to relieve me of the responsibility for my life?
Am I looking for a group where I feel I can belong and be taken care of in return for doing what I am told?
What am I giving up?
Am I moving towards something I am drawn to, or am I running away from my life as it is.

Often students transitioning from the "culture of embeddedness" with their teachers into more independent functioning seek psychotherapeutic help. Bogart [4] has reviewed the various disturbances and problems that can occur in the relationship between a student and his/her spiritual teacher. (See case example below.)

Case Examples
Separating from a Guru-Greg Bogart,PhD

Anemia and limping in a vegetarian adolescent by Chiron R et al. Arch Pediatr 2001 Jan;8(1):62-5


In Anemia and limping in a vegetarian adolescent, the adolescent on the vegan diet imposed by the cult was deficient in ...

a) calcium
b) vitamin D
c) vitamin B12
d) all of the above.

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WWW LIBRARY of Religion and Spirituality
The WWW LIBRARY of Religion and Spirituality contains articles on cults and NRMs.

1 Rochford,E, Purvis,S Eastman (1989). New religions, mental health, and social control. In Lynn, Monty L. (Ed); Moberg, David O. (Ed). Research in the social scientific study of religion: A research annual, Vol. 1. (pp. 57-82.

2 Vaughan, F. (1987). A question of balance: Health and pathology in new religious movements. In Spiritual choices: The problem of recognizing authentic paths to inner transformation. D. Anthony, B. Ecker and K. Wilber. New York, Paragon House: 265-282.

3 Welwood J (1987) On Spiritual authority: Genuine and counterfeit In Spiritual choices: The problem of recognizing authentic paths to inner transformation. D. Anthony, B. Ecker and K. Wilber. New York, Paragon House: 283-304.

4 Bogart, G. C. (1992). Separating from a spiritual teacher. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24(1), 1-22).



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