– 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 ?

First of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me to represent Austria. Please allow me to introduce myself: I have 33 years’ experience in the field of psychiatry, specialising in child and adolescent psychiatry. I am the only Austrian Director of a university hospital centre of psychiatry for children and adolescents. I have received a psychoanalyst education in individual psychology according to Alfred Adler, am a didactic psychoanalyst and have received complementary training in group analysis. But just as importantly, I am father to 4 children, so am very familiar with the age of adolescence. For several years I have worked as a consultant for the Austrian Ministry of Education, in tandem with the Austrian Home Office, on issues regarding cults and religious cults for young people. I am also recognised as an expert on two requests submitted to our government by pseudoreligious groups seeking to obtain recognised church status. These groups withdrew their applications before a governmental decision was made, strongly suggesting that, owing to an indiscretion, the parties concerned read prematurely the results of the expert’s report.

I would like to begin by giving an overview of a programmatic which helps reveal my subject. I will first address the global understanding of personality and its structure. I will then introduce the parameters of the psychology of adolescent development, given that this age often manifests isolated symptoms of a psychopathological nature. Following this, I will present thoughts and reflections on the pedagogic gap and I will review a collection of educational maxims from the past 100 years. Finally, I will present my main subject, the path leading from the relative norms of a human being to pathology, which is a study of human extreme states. In this way we see that there are grounds for opposition, that of the development of a young person displaying obvious psychological symptoms of pathology and the execution of a course of treatment. This sometimes occurs following both a period spent in an environment where drugs are easily available, and also by the practice of rituals of dependence acquired through belonging to a pseudoreligious cult.

Part 1: The global structure of personality

To be able to understand completely the personality of a human being, regardless of his age, requires the use of a 5-dimension model, as much to obtain a cross section of his current mental state as to retranscribe the development of his personality.

In this way, we can perceive a person through his physical, intellectual, emotional and social dimensions and sex. If we set this study as our objective, we must evaluate both the current mental state of the person as well as the development of his personality using various chronological cross sections, in order to obtain a progression in the form of a longitudinal section.

Today, in the here and now, I am able to understand a person’s physical state and impediments, and can perceive a person’s intelligence, so to speak, using predetermined I.T. resources and software employed in education. The evaluation of these factors is carried out not only with regard to the cultural aptitudes required in acquiring the scholastic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic and the gathering of lexical knowledge, but also regarding creativity, association and, in particular, the element constituting, in my eyes, the activity of supreme reasoning: the aptitude to consistently anticipate and think in advance in a planned and sensible manner and to be able to act in accordance with this way of thinking.

In the 3rd area, emotionality should not only be judged by individual capacity to vibrate and by the genetically pre-programmed factors of temperament and fundamental emotional structure, but on the contrary from the highly qualified capacity to read into one’s own and others’ feelings.

The concept of alexithymia, the incapacity to recognise and describe feelings, had already acquired considerable importance amongst psychologists specialised in individual psychology during the 1930’s, and now enjoys extreme significance in a universe immersed in communication yet deindividualized. By examining feelings such as fear, the maximisation of euphoria – gained through high-risk danger sports, depressive moods or increasing unhappiness leading to inflated levels of irritation and aggressiveness, we can observe the potential dangers threatening young people.

Moreover, there is good reason to integrate the social domain in this study. A child or an adolescent should be exposed to what type of socialisation, in order to be guided, with a certain maturity, by a formed consciousness? How does the recognition of the consequences of one’s actions arise, namely the planned mental anticipation of a right or a wrong, and not just the fact of having such an awareness, but also being able to act on that realisation.

Finally, the question of sex is also significant, since this area lends itself precisely to the shameless exploitation of various behaviours of seduction and dependence, particularly in cases of recruitment by religious groups, the requirement of belonging, or even blackmail, which drives the person once more to be able to free himself.

To summarise in one sentence, we must never lose sight, in our relationships with the people involved, of this global study fusing physical, intellectual, emotional and social issues and the question of sex, in its entirety and with its social entanglement.

Part 2:

In several of my publications I have addressed the theme of the age of adolescence and that of the age of a young adult. In my book “Irrgarten Pubertät” (“The Labyrinth of Puberty”), I strived to explain the process of a young person’s pursuit on the road leading him towards the adult universe.

To outline the process of pursuit we use the 3 ‘I’s, specifically the pursuit of identity, the pursuit of identification and the pursuit of intimacy. The issue of identity amounts to a young person asking himself, “what will I be like as an adult, how will my own identity form itself through my thoughts, my feelings, my will and my acts?”. The young person will ask, “how do I react to other people and how do they react to me?”, and “what does it mean to be an adult man or an adult woman?”.

The pursuit of identification is a development process, characterised by the search for examples, models, ideals and ideologies. In this field, the great potential of danger inherent in a lack of critical thinking and development of discussion involves being exposed to psychologically seductive personalities (“psychological seducers”). These people lie in wait within extremist political groups and fanatical religious cultures, and use their powers of seduction to drive people involved in criminal activities towards current trends and finally to the idealisation of a maximisation of pleasure, thus supplanting “vital activation”.

The 3rd pursuit is that of intimacy. Well before the emergence of the search for sexual intimacy, the emotional process of detachment from the home environment leads into a pursuit of proximity and distance. Given that the process of detachment can only get underway through conflict and that the typical lack of energy of this age does not lend itself to the formation of new emotional links, there occurs a void in the means of establishing links. It is at this stage of development that these groups of seducers form, with the pretence of holding the “miracle formula” for all issues faced by a disturbed human being. These seducers exploit the weaknesses of this age to convince certain young people of their ideology. The lack of self confidence in an adolescent leads him to look for proximity, and because of this lack of assurance the temporary psychopathology typical in this age group can also take hold.

Part 3:

The third fundamental notion revolves around the various pedagogic styles of education. The authoritarian maxims of last century led to 2 world wars where thoughtless obedience, leadership structures and authoritarian figures served as models. Absolute “obedience” was the motto of that period. Its antithesis, anti-authoritarian education, may today be considered as a failure, since anti-authoritarian education ultimately means allowing children to grow up in fear and not preparing them for the dangers and rejection that face them in life. Democratic-style education then arose, where absolutely everything had to be discussed and voted upon; we should remember the apodictic comments made by the children.

Ultimately, it is an educative style with a “laissez-faire” approach, also known as liberal education, which is widespread, and which has produced a high level of “educative incompetence” and reluctance to make a decision, one of the main reasons why youngsters have become so independent. This approach invented peer group education 15 or so years ago. More and more young children are now demanding the status of “Young Person” and the age of adolescence is increasing. Finally, “being in shape” has become the ultimate necessity, and peer group education has become the cult phenomenon of today’s youth, “to be part of it at all costs”, with the motto, “we will build our own education system, alone”. This void has also seen, of course, the development of sectarian groups, which have arisen in abundance.

I am not a specialist in education sciences, but I am a doctor with psychoanalytic reasoning, and I am also a father. Learning by imitation alone, of which adults should all be aware, sets the guiding lines, requiring both a certain development of discussion and conflict and an increased level of self command instilled by parents, playschool teachers, school teachers and other members of educative staff. Moreover, it seems that being allowed to gain one’s own experiences encompasses the capacity to learn by one’s mistakes, by the virtue that only those who succeed in recognising danger are not victims of that danger. We must also expose our children with precaution to calculable dangers, so that they can overcome comparable hazards at an advanced age, particularly with regards to seducers, who by their very nature are proficient in the psychology of publicity. We must also abandon the practice of education by cross-examination, which consists of asking questions whose answers are recognisable by the teacher, and which serves only to drive the cross-examined person to adopt uncomfortable and defensive reactions.

Following on from the points we have already addressed, our progression leads us to psychopathology and symptomatology in young people. Psychopathology is the science of mental, physical and emotional disorders, which lead to social conflict and require treatment. I recognise that it is difficult to confine oneself to the WHO definition of health and sickness, just as it is difficult to consider a person as normal or abnormal. But when we are concerned with defining the necessity of treatment, it is a question of choosing the path of human dignity. A person requires treatment when he or she is not capable of carrying out daily tasks that are typical for that person’s age group and culture. This definition allows us to avoid classification by derogatory family methods, implicitly enabling the greatest advantages from treatment.

The fundamental statements that will now be introduced in this conference come back to the same point; can psychopathology drive an adolescent to join a sectarian group, and can pseudoreligious cults, through their rites, rituals and requirements, render their members psychologically unwell?

By virtue of my experience, I must acknowledge that the two theses proposed should be viewed as precise.

Let’s first look at the first thesis:

Does the process of pursuit lead a psychologically unstable or unwell person to become a member of a cult?

The age of youth is not only defined by a process of pursuit, but also as an age of crisis, in which the most frequent crises include conflicts of authority, problems at school, learning difficulties and poor results, problems concerning work and relationship conflicts. These crises produce symptoms such as anguish, obsessions, mood swings towards depression and psychosomatic problems. If we assemble these conflicts and their symptoms, diagnostics reveal problems of personality development with a decline in wealth or into poverty, eccentricity, problems of self worth, depersonalisation and derealisation and genuine existential crises following reactions to post-traumatic stress. We can also see restrictions in a person’s life style, which often lead to a need to multiply his or her experiences.

Each of these crises, symptoms and syndromes threaten a young person to the point of making them susceptible to variants of researched solutions or to promises of salvation. The young person then tries self-help methods in the most positive sense of the term through confiding in his or her family or circle of friends, or even receiving professional help through a referral to a psychologist. On the other, more negative, hand, the young person attempts self-help through the use of drugs or in succumbing to the promises made by gurus or pseudoreligious associations. After all, there is no danger posed if we use the concept of “doctrines of salvation” concerning messages circulated by associations promising to provide a stabilisation of body, soul and spirit.

The people in particular danger are those who have a psychological image manifesting delirious symptoms. Delirium can be defined as irreality, subjective certitude and the inability to be corrected. If the leader of a cult manages to render plausible each of these 3 concepts to the susceptible person, that person will lose all critical thinking as regards the theoretical fabric of the cult. The person will consequently become closely attached to the subjective certitude of receiving a new and perfect life-plan and will defend himself against the outside world by clinging to this unreal opinion and by refusing to be corrected. In this way, the person will lose his critical attitude with respect to life. The many conflicts, symptoms and syndromes we have discussed will produce a sense of availability and a rapid dependence with respect to the cult seducer.

These psychological states among young people, which I have identified along with their serious and dramatic elements, can of course also manifest themselves as partial symptoms. These symptoms can reveal the risk of the adolescent withdrawing into isolation and retreating from his home environment and social milieu, due to the intervention of the sectarian group acting as a figure of support.

The 2nd thesis warrants the same level of attention as the 1st theory:

The issue that arises is as follows: do cults render their followers unwell by the requirements that they impose?

Fundamentally, there is good reason to note that the admission of young person into a sectarian group is aided by the process of pursuit that was initially aroused, just as the process of detachment from the home environment destabilises the life of the person involved.

Who, in adolescence, hasn’t gone through an episode of depression after suffering a setback, where a state of physical failure and its inadequacies was predominant on the intellectual, emotional and social plane? It may be one’s own destabilising personal appraisal that reveals itself during adolescence, where the offer of a blueprint promising total satisfaction provides such a seductive effect. A psychologically unstable adolescent will succumb to the purported function of protection and support, will encounter a group which previously remained forbidden, will experience consolation and, as part of his pursuit for meaning, will find supposed solutions to the questions that torment him. It is in this psychological state that he enters a group that will restrict enormously his personality to just a small number of ways to live and organise his life. In this environment young people experience psychological regression towards the infant stages of development. Their faculties of judgement and critical thinking are constrained to the point where they lose their faculties. Their aptitude to carry out work and even their own autonomy is restricted. This often creates a loss of financial independence and a loss of the capacity to form links and assume responsibility towards their family, friends and acquaintances. In this state of isolation with respect to the person’s circle of friends outside the organisation, he will develop a very strong attachment to the sectarian group. The cult will create within that person a distinct conscience of the presence of outside enemies and the extremely testing life style will produce in that person a state of exhaustion.

With the loss of his own personality, which is replaced by a personality that is foreign to him or by a “unified personality”, the person will eventually display, in response to manipulation and the actions demanded of him, symptoms of serious psychological illness. The dangers associated with required obedience lead to feelings of anguish. Ritual incantations give rise to feelings of belonging to the group and the abandonment of the person’s own individual functions. Feelings of guilt lead to panic and the construction of an outside enemy encourages feelings of paranoia. This doctrine aims to create a total dependence on the sectarian group and aims to reduce the group member to the state of a simple puppet. Given that the young person does not yet have a stable self-appraisal with regards to his thoughts, feelings, will and actions, he needs the outside community for work and to achieve various feats in life. He needs support and assistance to be able to obtain his school qualifications and to gain and remain in employment. If he finds himself in psychosocial isolation, from which he is not capable of liberating himself alone, he will be gripped by panic. He will be increasingly captured by a group that is pursuing purely selfish goals, the systematic quest to take advantage and the attainment of a totalitarian environment. In this way, the person will be compelled into remaining alone, unskilled, and eventually will be cast into a milieu of violence and abuse.

These traumatising psychological factors systematically create a reaction of traumatic stress, and in specifically predisposed people will most certainly create exogenic and endogenic psychosis, indicating a mental illness characterised by mood problems or psychological difficulties equivalent to one of these pathologies.

* * *

Finally, I would like to conclude. The experience I have accumulated over the past few decades has shown me that groups that are not recognised as churches pursue 3 objectives or criteria that endanger young people:

  1. These groups recruit for their own community by feigning to hold the “miracle formulae” essential for life and by being able to offer a disturbed human being the absolute solutions that he needs.
  2. As soon as the person belongs to the group, he begins to be manipulated in the various dimensions of physical, intellectual, emotional and social development, from which the young person is not only incapable of escaping, but to which he succumbs.
  3. If a young person tries to escape from this manipulation terrorist tactics are employed in order to frighten, cause panic and remove the capacity of the person concerned to leave the group of his own free will.

People who are primarily psychologically stable and who have joined a sectarian group, despite being predisposed to becoming psychologically unwell, become incapable of regaining, on their own initiative, their life outside the group. It is only in extreme psychological cases, where the group fears that the member could threaten the group integrity or even other members, that the member is excluded. Disinterested group members, including those who are financially uninterested, are also forced to resign. The psyche of these young people that I have described today is seriously and long lastingly perturbed, whatever happens and for all concerned.

Marseilles March 27-28 2004