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Mental Health, Suicidal Feelings, and Authoritarian Cults

Threats of shunning or ex-communication are powerful tools of control.

Key points

  • Cult members often live an inauthentic life which affects their mental health.
  • Authoritarian cults use deceptive recruitment tactics and a variety of psychological and emotional tactics to maintain psychological control.
  • High control groups program members to fear mental health help.
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For many trapped inside an authoritarian cult, members are dissuaded from seeking out qualified professionals for anxiety, depression, or mental health issues. Groups with high control typically program members to fear mental health help. Even when members leave, they may continue to have this fear.

But asking for help when experiencing mental health issues takes a great deal of courage. When thoughts of suicide are involved, a dismissive response can easily result in tragedy. In fact, any person or organization willing to maintain a positive public image by sacrificing the well-being of others relies on many of the same psychological theories and tactics used by authoritarian cults.

Dispensing of Existence

Authoritarian cults use deceptive recruitment tactics and a variety of psychological and emotional tactics to maintain psychological control thereafter. One of the most comprehensive studies of such techniques was written by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China.

Lifton identified eight criteria important for thought reform. Dispensing of existence is one of the essential criteria. It says that if a person is part of the group, they have a right to exist, and if they leave or refuse to join, they lose that right. Authoritarian cults have an absolutist vision of truth, and followers must believe that “truth“ completely. Great emphasis is placed on this, reinforcing the idea that there is no legitimate existence outside the cult. Internalization of this idea makes threats of shunning or ex-communication compelling tools of control. When a person is subjected to shunning and isolation from the group, along with the guilt from not being able to live up to the group’s standards, and there are no resources to cope, unfortunately, some people opt to commit suicide.

Mental Health Issues Inside an Authoritarian Cult

Destructive cults promote the idea that their leader, doctrine, and policies are perfect. Although policies and leadership may change over time, their authority is the one and only is pervasive and consistently used to maintain power over people. Therefore, mental health issues among their adherents cannot be attributed to the cult, as that would call this institution into question. Therefore, any mental health problems must be the individual’s fault rather than involvement in the cult.

If someone dares to exit the cult and criticize, the tactical response is typically an ad hominem attack. The critic or former member’s character is attacked rather than addressing the factual issue itself. If the cult offers help to a member, they will undoubtedly be referred to someone who will support the cult’s position. Some cults completely reject the idea of mental illness and provide treatments of their own.

Whatever attitudes a particular cult may have toward mental health per se, the culture of authoritarian cults itself contributes to severe mental distress. Members of cults are commonly required to work long hours, and schedules are always packed–recruiting, fundraising, doing political demonstrations, and frequent and lengthy study sessions.

Leaving a Cult Without Support Can Result in a Suicide Attempt

The goal of dispensing of existence is to make a person totally dependent on the cult to provide meaning and support in their life. Contact with any family members and friends who question the legitimacy of the cult is severely restricted or completely severed. Therefore, leaving a cult can feel like a kind of psychic death. Passage of time, competent professional help, and social support help promote a successful transition from unthinking obedience back to exercising freedom of thought and action.

When a person is born into a cult or brought in as a child by their parents, the difficulty of leaving, even by personal choice, is compounded significantly. There may be no outsiders to provide support, and the isolation may become overwhelming. Sometimes that becomes unbearable, and suicide is often the result.

Lessening the Risk of Suicide

According to the CDC, suicide is not caused by a single factor, but most suicide prevention efforts are directed specifically toward improving mental health conditions. Other factors such as relationship problems, life stressors, loss of home, and recent or impending crises are also risk factors. Certainly, the cumulative effect of cult indoctrination and losing a cult's (false) security could be counted among these factors. Unfortunately, most mental health professionals are not yet trained in how to diagnose and treat people subjected to the dissociative issues incurred by undue influence (See DSMV 300.15)

Mental health concerns, particularly suicidal ideation, should be met with compassionate understanding and professional help. Leaving any authoritarian organization that uses undue influence to maintain its power is a healthy act of self-preservation. Willingness to speak openly and publicly of one’s experience to help others struggling with similar issues should be supported and applauded.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Mental Health Issues Including Suicidal Feelings and Authoritarianism

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'brainwashing' in China

Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform (Brainwashing, Mind Control)

Shunning: The Trauma of Being Cut Off

Preventing Suicide (

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