Overview: Mental Health

Overview: Mental Health Professionals 

Michael D. Langone, PhD

Mental health professionals are prone to make a number of errors in cases involving spiritual abuse or cultic involvements.

First, they may assume that a group involvement is merely a sign of normal adolescent rebellion and identity searching, and that "this too will pass." Although this point of view is sometimes true, it is false often enough to make the assumption unwise. Don't dismiss families who may seek your help. Their concerns may indeed be warranted. And don't overlook the possible deleterious role of spiritual abuse or cult involvement in patients who seek your help for depression or other psychological disorders. 

The second common error mental health professionals make is to assume that clients' symptoms necessarily reflect unconscious individual psychopathology and/or a dysfunctional family system. There is no doubt that many who experience spiritual abuse or who join cultic groups have pre-existing psychological problems and/or come from highly dysfunctional families. But many have normal psychological and family backgrounds. Those who were troubled and those who were not troubled may both be affected—though perhaps in different ways—by a highly manipulative and exploitative environment or relationship. So don't focus on the person's or family's past to such a high degree that you overlook possibly traumatic effects of an abusive experience. Victims, who may initially come under the influence of an abuser to satisfy normal human needs or participate in what appears to be a good cause, do not automatically realize that they fell prey to a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Hence, they may not report an abusive experience because their abusers often employed bait-and-switch and other deceptively manipulative tactics. One function of counseling with such persons is to teach them about manipulative tactics so that they can reevaluate their experience in light of this knowledge.
A third common error is to  succumb to confirmatory bias, that is, the common human tendency to notice, seek, and/or be alert to information that supports our initial impressions or formal assessment. Professionals should, to the contrary, notice, seek, and/or be alert to information or behavior that is inconsistent with the professional’s initial assessment. The findings of an assessment are more akin to a scientific theory to be tested rigorously than to a “fact” upon which to build future investigations. This is especially true in cases that involve spiritual or psychological abuse. The reality often isn’t what it at first appears to be. 

Finally, don’t approach such cases as a strange, deeply mysterious phenomenon requiring esoteric expertise. Problems related to spiritual abuse or cults are, at their heart, consequences of unusually powerful social influences interacting with the spectrum of human personalities, needs, and goals. They are similar to other situations where social influence adversely affects a person’s or a family’s functioning. Some have pointed out similarities between these cases and certain instances of spouse abuse, hostage experiences, and abuse within dysfunctional families. Professionals with knowledge and experience dealing with these kinds of problems may frequently apply what they know to cult situations. We advise these professionals, however, to supplement their expertise through readings available on this site and contact with professionals who specialize in treating spiritual or cultic abuse problems. See ICSA's Counseling Resources page, which lists experts around the world, to locate colleagues with expertise in this area. ICSA also offers training for mental health professionals at many of its conferences. (SAR is a project of ICSA - see about us.)