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The Epidemic of Undue Influence

Many clinicians lack training to deal with survivors of undue influence

Key points

  • People who have experienced the undue influence of a destructive, high-control group or relationship have special needs in therapy.
  • Clinicians need to be aware of the unique mindsets, phobias, and problematic beliefs a patient will have acquired in a high-control group.
  • Clinicians need to make extra effort when taking a client's history to look for evidence of undue influence.
  • The presenting issue may have a direct link to involvement in a cult or authoritarian influence.

There is a public health crisis concerning the use of undue influence by authoritarian people, groups, and even countries. For example, an estimated 40 million Americans and 650 million people worldwide are in bible-oriented groups with a leader who claims to be an apostle or prophet who speaks directly to God. The leaders claim to get direct revelations from God. Many are also utterly convinced that Donald Trump won the 2020 election in the U.S. or that President Biden and the Democrats are part of an international trafficking cabal.

In addition, PSYOPS (military term for psychological warfare techniques) are being used to recruit people online into conspiracy organizations like QAnon, which is now calling itself Ultra-Maga. The media incorrectly calls them conspiracy theories when they are ideological online cults. There are many other categories of authoritarian groups, from overcontrolling meditation/mindfulness groups to multilevel marketing groups to one-on-one cults and abusive family groups.

Incorrect Diagnoses Lead to Improper Treatments

Mental health professionals are often called to help people who have exited authoritarian cults or mind control relationships, or their families who have witnessed a radical personality change. Mental health professionals are unlikely to have received training for working with the DSM-5 Unspecified Dissociative Disorder 300.15 (F44.9). Previous DSMs have had other terms for this dissociative issue. The current wording uses words like brainwashing, thought reform, and coercive control as a disruption of identity.

People are being misdiagnosed as schizoaffective, bipolar, or borderline. Many people have been given antipsychotics and a host of psychotropic medications for years. I worked with a woman who had exited a bible “discipling” cult after a 13-year membership and then spent 11 years of incorrect diagnosis and care—overmedicated, cutting, and suicidal, before reading (my book) Combating Cult Mind Control and seeking intensive treatment. She reports she no longer needs medication, has finished a Ph.D., is married, and has two children.

Many people seek treatment not yet realizing what has happened to them. It is vitally incumbent on clinicians to do a thorough interview before starting treatment—asking about experiences such as corporal punishment, shunning, learned phobias (such as fearing demonic possession or imminent Armageddon), sexual repression, guilt, and other emotional consequences of membership in such groups.

A Widespread Lack of Proper Training

Sadly, since most therapists are not trained to help with the aftereffects of mind control and cult-related problems, they employ purely trauma-based approaches or DBT-oriented therapies. Many patients complain that they have spent money on therapy sessions in which they had to teach the therapist about cult mind control. A clinician must understand how to deal with the cult identity to get at the root of the issue.

Among the most common symptoms exhibited by people who were either born into an authoritarian family or a destructive cult, which clinicians should be on the lookout for:

  • Extreme Identity confusion
  • Dissociative states
  • Having unwanted triggers
  • Panic and anxiety attacks
  • Anger
  • Guilt and shame
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Eating disorders
  • Sleep disorders /nightmares
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Psychosomatic symptoms (headaches, asthma, skin problems)
  • Grief over loss of friends and family
  • Fear and Phobias
  • Problems with decision-making and dependency
  • Distrust of self and others
  • Feeling raped spiritually
  • Experiencing harassment and threats

A therapist treating a cult survivor should be willing to learn about the group and its worldview, making themselves aware of the uniquely loaded language (terms that have a special meaning) within the group as well as the specific triggers and phobias the patient has acquired as part of group conditioning. A clinician should also be mindful of the chronology of events within the high control group or relationship, including details such as names of significant cult members and leaders, the length of time from initial contact to full commitment, the jobs or roles the individual had in the group, as well as what kind of communication the individual has had with family and friends since joining. Counseling for grief at leaving what is usually an emotionally close circle—and consequent feelings of guilt—is also key.

Clearing Away Myths and Moving Forward

Therapists wishing to help former members of authoritarian groups will also have to shed some inaccurate yet prevalent beliefs about cult membership, first and foremost the belief that those who “choose” to join such groups are somehow mentally or emotionally deficient. Many people who are recruited into authoritarian groups and abusive relationships are intelligent, altruistic, and even idealistic individuals; their better intentions are taken advantage of by recruiters who lure them in with false narratives and disinformation (such as the spurious tales of the “Pizzagate” pedophile ring or a “stolen” election), weaponizing their empathy and dulling their critical thinking.

Getting specialized training and proper supervision is needed to be effective. Learning about hypnosis and social psychology as well as giving helpful homework assignments is very important as well.

Working with this population is extremely gratifying, as they are typically highly motivated to understand what happened to them and to regain their personal power without carrying phobias or programmed beliefs that can undermine success in relationships and careers.

References

Hassan, Steven (2018). Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-Selling Guide to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults. 30th Anniversary Edition. Newton, Massachusetts: Freedom of Mind Press.

Hassan, Steven (1/6/2014). Pt. 2 Judith Herman's Victims of Violence Trauma Seminar Department of Psychiatry: Former Client Laura and Steve Hassan. Video of a professional training seminar workshop.

Hassan, Steven (2022). The Growing Rift Inside the New Apostolic Reformation with Frederick Clarkson and André Gagné. Freedom of Mind Resource Center Blog.

Atack, Jon (2021). Opening Our Minds: avoiding abusive relationships and authoritarian groups. Trentvalley Ltd.

American Psychiatric Association (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787

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