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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.  

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