Study Indicates Rehab’s Benefits
Paul Martin, Ph.D.
Because cults can be
oppressive environments, and because people who leave cults are
frequently disillusioned and overwhelmed by the challenge of adjusting
to mainstream society, former cult members experience a high level of
distress. Research studies suggest that more than one-third and possibly
more than one-half of those who have left cultic groups have been
detrimentally affected by their cultic experience. One researcher has
written: “Members may be harmed in that they lose their psychological
autonomy and, frequently, their financial assets. Furthermore, the
group’s partial-to-total disconnection from mainline society deprives
members of the opportunity to learn from the varied experiences that a
normal life provides. Members may lose irretrievable years in a state of
‘maturational arrest.’ In some cases they undergo psychiatric
breakdowns and/or suffer from physical disease and injury.”
A survey of 350 ex-cultists from 48 different groups found that
former members suffered from residual effects of their cult experience
lasting from 43.8 months to 139 months, with an average duration of 81.5
months. These effects included such things as depression, loneliness,
guilt, anger, fear, humiliation, disorientation, “floating” in and
out of altered states, nightmares, and an inability to break mental
rhythms of chanting, meditation, or speaking in tongues. Deprogrammed
subjects appeared to recover more quickly. Clinicians who have worked
extensively with former cultists say that most require six months to two
years to adjust adequately. Some require much more time.
often need so much time to readjust because so many areas of their lives
are adversely affected simultaneously. Most cultists are implicitly, if
not explicitly, encouraged to burn all interpersonal bridges to the
mainstream world. When they leave the cult, they are usually shunned by
their cult “friends” and met with puzzlement, hurt, and anger by the
old friends and relatives they had ignored for so long. Because of their
devotion to the cult’s “cause,” many cultists abandon school,
career plans, and even functioning careers in order to serve the group.
Leaving a group that appeared to provide spiritual meaning will often
leave ex-cultists feeling spiritually empty or spiritually raped. And,
in part because they had been indoctrinated in the cult to believe that
the group was always right, many former cultists consider themselves to
be failures or seriously inadequate. Thus, former cultists often have
interpersonal, vocational, spiritual, and intrapersonal conflicts and
it can certainly be helpful, weekly psychotherapy may be insufficient
for many former cultists. That is why many have attended special
residential treatment programs. The Wellspring Retreat and Resource
Center, for example, offers a comprehensive program of in‑depth
psychological assessment and treatment usually lasting two weeks.
Clients receive a full psychological test battery and assessment
interview. They participate
in workshops that address common postcult problems, e.g., depression,
grieving and loss, establishing career goals, spiritual issues.
All clients receive extensive one-on-one therapy. And all clients
receive an intensive education on psychological manipulation, thought
reform programs, and the cult conversion process.
term “rehabilitation” has been applied to this process because, like
persons recovering from physical injuries, ex-cultists require an
intensive program in order to bring them back at least to the level at
which they once functioned. Also, as with the physically injured, most ex-cultists were
relatively normal before they were seduced into a destructive group.
has conducted the only formal outcome evaluation study with the ex-cult
rehabilitation population. The results are encouraging. Wellspring
clients are routinely administered the Millon Clinical Multiaxial
Inventory (MCMI) at intake and, in most cases, at a six-month follow-up.
The improvement in all clinical sub-scales, including dysthymia and
anxiety, was dramatic, with the exception of the psychotic delusion
scale, which was normal at the time of admission. Treatment
effectiveness was not enhanced, on the Millon inventory, if clients
sought further psychiatric care once they left Wellspring. Wellspring
research indicates, then, that additional psychotherapy following postcult
rehabilitation does not appreciably reduce the ex-members’
symptomatology. The study, however, did not include consideration of
psychotherapy gains through work with mental health professionals
trained to recognize and deal with cult-related symptoms and dynamics.
Such work may greatly aid the recovery process.
conclude, an intensive postcult rehabilitation program may be a cost-effective
treatment for former cult members. By clarifying the cult-related issues
troubling the client, it can lay the groundwork for a more productive
Langone, M.D., Destructive
Cultism: Questions and Answers. Bonita Springs, FL:
Foundation, 1982, 7.
Conway, F. et al. Information
Disease: Effects of Covert lnduction and Deprogramming. Update 10
(3) 1986, 63-65 and
Update, 10 (3). 45-57