Skip to main content

mental health 'mondays' :: they sell sanctuary

one of the things that has been running through my head since friday has been just how like a cult isis is. although it lacks the monomaniacal leadership that one typically associates with apocalyptic cults, it does prey on the vulnerable and the young, seducing them to a violent ideology wherein they will be rewarded for their earthly sacrifices with vip treatment in the afterlife. in the age of the internet, where many to many communication has become the norm, the power of the idea requires no leader to draw others. it sits alone, appearing to need no central leader, although, of course, there are leaders central to its perpetual recruitment drive.

cults tend to involve various sorts of mental disorders, although it is a mistake to conflate the two. leaders tend to suffer from narcissistic personalities, their need for adoration and total subjugation fulfilled by dismantling the egos of those who follow them. they may also show strong antisocial tendencies, unable to consider the feelings of others on the same level as their own. some certainly experience intense bouts of paranoia- itself symptomatic of a number of disorders. does that mean that all cult leaders are clinically insane? no, but it means that their personalities are extremely twisted through having found some unhealthy ways to deal with disordered thinking. as a result, you could hardly pick a worse model to deal with the young, still working to form ideas about the world, and the vulnerable, feeling lost in the world.

but what about the people who join cults? surely, there has to be something wrong with them, right? yes and no. overwhelmingly, the majority of cult members do not exhibit classical signs of any mental disorders. however, about one-third show signs of depression. that's far from a majority, but it's still a significantly higher rate than occurs in the general population. so, yes, people are drawn to cults when they feel unworthy themselves, or hopeless about their opportunities. but does that mean that we have no way of predicting who is likely to fall victim to the manipulation of a cult, or a group like isis?

actually, there are ways of identifying those who are "at risk" and they are pretty much exactly what you'd think they are. one of the things that psychologists like to point out is that their profession have traditionally placed too much emphasis on personality and not enough on environment. in fact, we now understand that environment is crucially important and the source of lots of contributing factors that can be "breaking points" for otherwise healthy people. things like sudden moves to another city or country, or the breakup of a relationship, things that strip away our sense of security that the most primal parts of our brain associates with survival. the trials of transitioning from child to adult are full of these moments, often amplified in our brains because of our relative inexperience. faced with the fear of having to handle things on our own, it is easier for us to opt for a situation that allows us to exist in a perpetual childhood, where expectations and rules are clear.

the problem right now, of course, is that a lot of the people susceptible to the sort of programming that cults and isis offer is that they're in countries like iraq and syria, which are about the worst possible environments you can imagine for emotional fragility. in the late seventies, jim jones managed to convince nearly a thousand people to follow him into the jungle of guyana from the relative comfort of the united states. imagine what he could have convinced them to do had he been in a country in the midst of a civil war, where bombs were falling and people were dying every day.

in fact, isis recruitment techniques are extremely similar to those of other cults: they offer a sense of community, and a community that understands the target's sense of isolation. but they also work to increase that sense of isolation, so that the target feels that their only true friends are found within the movement. here's an example of the techniques as used on an otherwise healthy young american woman. the isolation increases dependence on the group, but it also allows the group to present a more appealing version of itself. everything comes down to control: the group's insistence on establishing and maintaining, but also [to borrow from michel foucault] the willingness of the target to relinquish it, or to trade it for a sense of order and purpose.

the purpose of lavishing attention on the target is not merely to make them feel flattered and loved, but also to bombard them with so much information and verbal affection that their brain can't cope with it. they become discombobulated and the effect is an almost like hypnosis. afloat on a sea of internet love, they become extremely susceptible to what their loving friends tell them, including some things that they simply wouldn't accept in their normal state. this is a way of breaking down the ego, pulling apart the personality in a way that seems pleasing.

what's truly scary is that, for those who do escape the clutches of a cult, it seems nigh on impossible to undo what's been done to them. some have argued that cult behaviour introduces an entirely new sort of psychological disorder to the world, somewhat similar to posttraumatic stress disorder, but applied with the precision of surgery. that's a terrifying thought: people who go through the tortuous and sometimes dangerous process of escaping a cult may do so only to find out that their brains are permanently compromised.

so what's the solution, then?

well, for those people who are the most vulnerable- those living in war-torn areas, desperate to make some sort of sense of what's happening to them and find some type of safety and security- part of the solution is to get them out of danger, as many of them as possible, as fast as possible. you're worried about the spread of isis? you should be supporting anyone who wants to get refugees out of war zones and into stable situations.

other than that, protecting others from indoctrination shouldn't require a lot of deviation from things that make it easier to go through life: communicate openly and honestly; fight the dangers of reductionist thinking by taking the time to learn and discuss the complexity of situations; encourage everyone to think for themselves and to question what appears to be; reach out to people when you fear they're becoming isolated or depressed, if only to let them know that you're willing to listen and help if you can.

you can impose whatever legal or military barriers you want and that will make things more difficult [which can be a good thing], but it also feeds the us versus them dialectic that cults use to "prove" their paranoia and convince recruits to stay within the fold. the real way to stop a cult- any cult- is to cut off their supply of new members, because that is their oxygen.  

Comments

as long as you're here, why not read more?

wrong turn

as some of you are aware, i have a long-term project building a family tree. this has led me to some really interesting discoveries, like the fact that i am partly descended from crazy cat people, including the patron saint of crazy cat ladies, that a progenitor of mine once defeated a french naval assault with an army of scarecrows, that my well-established scottish roots are just as much norwegian as scottish, and that a relative of mine from the early middle ages let one rip with such ferocity that that's basically all he's remembered for. but this week, while i was in the midst of adding some newly obtained information, i found that some of my previous research had gone in an unexpected direction: the wrong one.

where possible, i try to track down stories of my better-known relatives and in doing so this week, i realised that i couldn't connect one of my greatĖ£ grandfathers to his son through any outside sources. what's worse that i found numerous sources that con…

dj kali & mr. dna @ casa del popolo post-punk night

last night was a blast! a big thank you to dj tyg for letting us guest star on her monthly night, because we had a great time. my set was a little more reminiscent of the sets that i used to do at katacombes [i.e., less prone to strange meanderings than what you normally hear at the caustic lounge]. i actually invited someone to the night with the promise "don't worry, it'll be normal". which also gives you an idea of what to expect at the caustic lounge. behold my marketing genius.

mr. dna started off putting the "punk" into the night [which i think technically means i was responsible for the post, which doesn't sound quite so exciting]. i'd say that he definitely had the edge in the bouncy energy department.

many thanks to those who stopped in throughout the night to share in the tunes, the booze and the remarkably tasty nachos and a special thank you to the ska boss who stuck it out until the end of the night and gave our weary bones a ride home…

eat the cup 2018, part seven :: oh, lionheart

it all seemed so magical: england's fresh-faced youngsters marching all the way through to a semi-final for the first time since 1990. everywhere, the delirious chants of "it's coming home". and then, deep into added time, the sad realization: it's not coming home. oh england, my lionheart.

now, if we're being really strict about things, my scottish ancestors would probably disown me for supporting England, because those are the bastards who drove them off their land and sent them packing to this country that's too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. and indeed, shops in scotland have sold through their entire stock of croatian jerseys, as the natives rallied behind england's opponents in the semi-final. however, a few generations before they were starved and hounded from the lands they'd occupied for centuries, my particular brand of scottish ancestors would have encouraged me to support england [assuming that national football had even…