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Understanding the Connection Between Mental Illness and Cults

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Cults are often viewed as a spectacle within society, associated with bizzare rituals, insane leaders, and brainwashed followers. However, besides the very few cult organizations which have been highly publicized, this is often not the case for most cults. Many who view cults from afar may think that they may never be drawn to the strange and sometimes harmful lifestyle, and those who do must be mentally disturbed or otherwise. The truth is that most people who join cults were once regular members of society with no prior history of any mental illness or any indication that they are different from any other person within their community. People who join cults are viewed as insane to subject themselves to something potentially harmful or, in some cases, deadly. People with mental illnesses may join a cult for a sense of belonging, self-regulation, emotional comfort, meaning, and spirituality, according to Kenneth I Pargament and James W Lomax from the World Psychiatry Journal (2013).

It is also believed that in order to join a cult, you have to be mentally disturbed because you are choosing a life that is different from the norm, and most of the time, giving up a lot of your freedoms. In many instances, it may be a reasonable conclusion to make. Those with mental illnesses may be viewed as especially vulnerable to cult-like religious organizations because they may already have clouded judgement and are easily swayed by the promise of happiness and a sense of fulfillment which they may not currently be feeling. However, a religion that promises fulfilment and happiness is not something that is just found in cults. Psychologically speaking, the ultimate purpose of religion is to provide an explanation for existence, and the pain, suffering, and daily troubles we experience. It gives us meaning to life and something to look forward to, as well as a means to uphold human morals and a guideline to keep a functioning society. In the case of cults, it is often called the “dark side” of what religion can do to a society. Cults leaders reject societal norms and rather seek to create their own set of morals and guidelines for their followers to uphold. A notable example of this is the cult created by Jim Jones, called “Jonestown”.

Jim Jones, the famous leader of the cult, convinced hundreds of people to devote their lives to his “religion”, by acting as a messiah among people who felt lost and disconnected from society. “Every single person felt they had a purpose there, and that they were exceptionally special. That’s how he brought so many young college kids in, so many older black women in, so many from diverse backgrounds who realised that there was something bigger than themselves they needed to be involved in, and Jim Jones offered that”, stated Deborah Layton in the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006). It’s surprising that someone so universally hated could have, at one time, been highly respected and even described as a role model. In reality, the fact that these leaders are so charismatic is why people tend to fall easily into the trap of being in a cult.

Most people who join cults are completely normal citizens, with no mental illnesses, who just fell into the cult mentality due to factors like childhood, their satisfaction with their jobs, spouse, and life in general. People get tired of living as a part of a society that they feel they don’t belong in, and don’t want to follow the rules given to them. Due to this mentality, people in this position often have low-self esteem and turn to those trying to recruit them. In turn, they may join a cult to feel a sense of belonging and to stray from normal society. Dr. Adrian Furnham wrote about the many reasons why people join cults for Psychology Today. He explains that as the world becomes a more complex place to live in year after year, the more people may try to find solutions on their own. In a time of confusion and uncertainty, cults offer answers and solutions.

Many who fall into cults may not even know that it is a cult to begin with. Most cults have a recruitment process that make their organization incredibly appealing. According to an article written for the American Psychological Association by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, there is no “type” of person who joins a cult. In fact, many who join are well-rounded individuals that are educated, logical, and sensible. A popular reason to join is the fact that cults often promise to solve societal issues by starting their own. They also offer a very structured lifestyle, and definitive answers to what is right and wrong, regardless of their members’ previous beliefs. There are almost never any red flags when joining a cult, and in most cases the longer you stay, the more you receive promises of health, well-being, and wealth. Major life changes such as divorce and death may make people especially vulnerable, as they are in a transitional period in their life and may be looking for more structure in their life.

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