– Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Medicine in Vienna
– Consultant on sectarian issues with the Austrian government

Does psychopathology lead to cults or do cults lead to psychopathology ?

  • Professor FRIEDRICH first of all confirmed the holistic nature of the structure of any character, and then described the elements making up such a character, i.e.: the nature of the physical, intellectual, emotional and social components.
  • The speaker went on to detail the three areas of mental development in the adolescent:
    • the construction of an identity,
    • the choice of identification made through researching models and ideas: the danger of getting under the influence of somebody else through mental manipulation is significant at this stage,
    • and finally the construction of a private life, through a certain detachment from the parents. This phase can be taken over by cults, who manipulate young people towards a new way of life.
  • Prof. FRIEDRICH went on to recall the main principles of education and their limits. He spoke about the liberal principle of laissez-faire, which can result in groups of adolescents educating themselves – the preferred prey for manipulative groups. The principle of learning by example is, in his opinion, the best choice, as it is character-building.
  • After having put forward some reference points as regards psychopathology and treatment, the speaker then moved onto two sides of the key issue of the relationship of cause-and-effect between cults and psychopathologies – the title of his presentation. In his work as psychiatrist and analyst for adolescents, Prof. FRIEDRICH has encountered two types of situation.
  • He firstly explained how some psychopathologies lead subjects towards cults. The adolescent undergoes deep crises, making him/her highly vulnerable to offers of support and healing. If he or she cannot find a way to heal themselves with the help of friends and family or with professional help, the young person can turn to drugs, or join pseudo-religious groups offering healing therapy. Those under the greatest threat are people showing signs of mental disorder, as cults are highly skilled at playing with the different elements of this disorder, i.e.: surrealism, subjective certainty and incorrigibility.
  • The speaker then tackled the issue of psychopathologies created by sects and cults. Cults with strong effects on their members’ personalities cause restrictions on the personality and field of activity, a reduction (or even eradication) of the critical mind, mental regression and a loss of self-control. The isolation that occurs after being cut off from family and friends strengthens the internal links within the cult. An alien, uniform personality is therefore substituted for the individual personality – the hallmark of mental manipulation. Threats, the inculcation of feelings of guilt and fear of a supposed external enemy lead the follower to a state of total dependency. Psychosensory isolation and the dismantling of personality make the adolescent highly vulnerable to violence and abuse. This path always leads to traumatic reactions and, in some predisposed cases, to exogenous, or even sometimes endogenous psychoses.
  • Prof. FRIEDRICH concluded by listing the three levels of action made by cults:
    • promises of absolute solutions and success in life made at the point of recruitment,
    • a variety of different forms of manipulation employed for the duration of the victim’s participation in the cult,
    • threats made against the follower seeking to leave the cult, or having succeeded in leaving it.

Debate: Many participants spoke about the opportunity for means of prevention against cults and sects concerning young people (14 years old appears to be the pivotal age).