Jan 27, 2016

Philadelphia: Mental Health Issues in Cult-Related Interventions - A Report Mental-Health Issues in Cult-Related Interventions

Report by John Paul Lennon

Sunday, October 13, 2013, Sheraton Philadelphia University City Hotel, PA

In this special event, cult-intervention specialists and mental-health professionals discussed their roles in helping families and former members—in particular, how those roles work together and how they differ. The event was intended to be useful to former members of high-control groups or relationships, families concerned about an affected loved one, and helping professionals whose assistance families and former members sometimes seek.


Among the questions examined were the following:

  • What assessment criteria should professionals consider to determine the appropriateness and feasibility of cult-related interventions?
  • What criteria should professionals consider to determine the appropriateness of mental-health consultation and/or treatment?

Speakers included some of the leading exit counselors and mental-health professionals in this field:


Information about these speakers is available on the ICSA website, www.icsahome.com


As ICSA President Steve Eichel noted in his closing remarks, this was a landmark occasion: the first time that exit counselors and mental-health professionals had sat down together and discussed their different approaches to helping cultic group members, former members, and families.

The meeting room was filled with about forty participants when the program opened just after 10:00 AM. A panel of intervention specialists—David Clark, Steven Hassan, Joseph Kelly, Patrick Ryan, and Joseph Szimhart—briefly presented its distinctive approaches. Several times panelists reiterated their shared belief that, rather than generalizing, it most important for professionals to be oriented to the particular individuals involved. There was agreement that the term "exit counseling" is hardly accurate because the field has moved away from intrusive actions—e.g., deprogramming, to what is now called thought-reform consultation. Some light bantering occurred as participants sought a more apt term, but without a consensus decision. What was agreed is that any intervention requires much background study by the professional, who also must prep the family in detail. To gather information on the cult-involved individual’s previous experiences and dynamics, most professionals have the family fill out detailed questionnaires.

The moderator, Lorna Goldberg, followed the interventionists’ presentations, gently and firmly leading them in dialog and later opening up the floor to the audience, whose members were eagerly waiting to contribute. The exchanges were lively and varied as participants sought answers to their pressing needs (they were loath to see lunchtime cut the discussion short).

After lunch, Steve Eichel, William Goldberg, Steven Hassan, Arnold Markowitz, and Daniel Shaw presented their mental-health perspectives. Of interest was the consensus among the various mental-health professionals regarding certain basic therapeutic goals: to open up and maintain communication between family members and the cult-involved person to strengthen those relationships; to be aware that cult involvement may exacerbate preexisting family tensions; that exited members should be assessed for personal safety and for postcult trauma, which requires specific therapeutic strategies.

The third part of the program was even more fascinating, as both sets of professionals formed a roundtable, and a general discussion ensued that revealed and fleshed out the complementarity between interventionists and therapists. The goal of professionals is no longer to get the member out of the cult, but rather to facilitate communication between the family and the cult-involved person. Interventionists agreed that exiting members generally need psychotherapy to help them process their leaving experience, continue healing, and consolidate their progress. Psychotherapists, for their part, acknowledged their limits regarding helping persons exit controversial groups. Moreover, they did not want to perform cult-exiting interventions of any kind, so as to protect their therapeutic relationship with the exiting or exited cult member.

The fourth stage of the program offered the audience an array of experts who were available to answer questions. Final remarks summarized the historic nature of this meeting and the satisfaction both sets of professionals felt with it. As the program drew to a close, members of the audience sought out experts for one-on-one help or more specific information. All seemed to benefit from the networking that such gatherings provide.

ICSA Today plans to publish presentations from this conference in a future issue.

John Paul Lennon, STL, MA, LPC, Board member, Regain Network (Religious Groups Awareness International Network). Mr. Lennon was a Legionary of Christ brother from 1961 to 1969 and an LC priest from 1969 to 1984. He served as a Diocesan priest from 1985 to 1989 and received an MA in Counseling from the Catholic University of America in 1989. For the past 10 years he has worked as a Child and Family Therapist in Arlington, Virginia. In 2008 he published a memoir, Our Father who art in bed, A Naive and Sentimental Dubliner in the Legion of Christ.
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