Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle, watched by tens of millions worldwide, was riveting and upsetting. The topic of racism in the Royal Family (“The Firm”) needs further in-depth discussion. However, in this blog, I want to focus on Meghan’s disclosure that she felt such high levels of stress and isolation that she became suicidal. Meghan reported that she repeatedly requested help, including that she needed to see a qualified mental health professional. She said her requests were denied. According to Markle, the decision to prohibit her from getting the help she desperately needed was based on protecting the Royal Family and its image, no matter the cost to a individual’s health.
Whether or not there is is an actual policy of the “institution” overseeing the Royal Family does not matter for the purpose of this blog. What is critical is that someone of her fame and accomplishment was sending an invaluable message to everyone to get help when it is needed. This is especially true if you are being told that you aren’t allowed to do so or directed to an “in-house” person who might have an obligation to protect the organization or institution. Licensed therapists know this is an explicit violation of ethical guidelines regarding “dual relationships.” Unfortunately, authoritarian groups regularly do this to keep people under their control. When anyone pleads for help, states they are feeling hopeless and expresses thoughts of suicide, there is only one appropriate response. Do whatever you need to do to get professional help and keep them safe. Immediately.
Asking for help when experiencing mental health issues takes a great deal of courage. When thoughts of suicide are involved, a dismissive response can easily result in tragedy. Any organization willing to maintain its public image by sacrificing the well-being of its members relies on many of the same psychological theories and tactics used by authoritarian cults.
Dispensing of Existence
Authoritarian cults use deceptive recruitment tactics and a variety of psychological and emotional tactics to maintain psychological control thereafter. One of the most comprehensive studies of such techniques was written by my mentor, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. I first encountered Dr. Lifton’s work during my deprogramming from the Moonies. Afterward, I studied the book and many others seeking to understand how I could have been manipulated and controlled by such a destructive cult. Although Dr. Lifton’s study specifically involved a study of Chinese brainwashing techniques in the 1950s, most of what he described resonated with me and reflected my experience in the Moonies cult.
Dr. Lifton identified eight criteria important for thought reform. Dispensing of existence is one of the essential criteria. It says that if a person is part of the group, they have a right to exist, and if they leave or refuse to join, they lose that right. Authoritarian cults have an absolutist vision of truth, and followers must believe that “truth“ completely. Great emphasis is placed on this, reinforcing the idea that there is no legitimate existence outside the cult. Internalization of this idea makes threats of shunning or ex-communication very powerful tools of control. When a person is subjected to shunning and isolation from the group, along with the guilt from not being able to live up to the group’s standards, and there are no resources to cope, unfortunately, some people opt to commit suicide.
While dispensing of existence is generally understood as metaphorical, it has been implemented literally. When understood literally, it can lead not only to suicide but also to the murder of perceived enemies. History is full of examples of its use—in Rwanda, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, just to name a few. Suicide and genocide are the ultimate acts of dispensing of existence.
Mental Health Issues Inside an Authoritarian Cult
Destructive cults promote the idea that their leader, doctrine, and policies are perfect. Although policies and leadership may change over time, the authority that they are the “one and only“ is pervasive and consistently used to maintain power over people. Therefore, mental health issues among their adherents cannot be attributed to the cult, as that would call this institution into question. Therefore, any mental health problems must be the individual’s fault, rather than involvement in the cult.
If someone dares to exit the cult and criticize, the tactical response is typically an “ad hominem,“ attack. The critic or former member’s character is attacked rather than addressing the factual issue itself. If the cult offers help to a member, they will undoubtedly be referred to someone who will support the cult’s position. Some cults completely reject the idea of mental illness and provide “treatments“ of their own. (See the section below on Scientology.)
Whatever attitudes a particular cult may have toward mental health per se, the culture of authoritarian cults itself contributes to severe mental distress. Members of cults are commonly required to work long hours. I slept an average of 3-4 hours nightly with no days off. Schedules are always packed–recruiting, fundraising, doing political demonstrations, as well as frequent and lengthy study sessions. When I was in the Moonies, I was told that if North Korea invaded South Korea, American members would be ordered to the front line to die in order to try to force the United States to enter the war. The constant pressure and intense time commitment lead to serious sleep and relaxation deficits, conditions that greatly impact personal mental health.
Leaving a Cult Without Support Can Result in a Suicide Attempt
The goal of dispensing of existence is to make a person totally dependent on the cult to provide meaning and support in their life. Contact with any family members and friends who question the legitimacy of the cult is severely restricted or completely severed. Therefore, leaving a cult can feel like a kind of psychic death. Passage of time, competent professional help, and social support help promote a successful transition from unthinking obedience back to exercising freedom of thought and action.
When a person is born into a cult or brought in as a child by their parents, the difficulty of leaving, even by personal choice, is compounded significantly. There may be no “outsiders“ to provide support, and the isolation may become overwhelming. Sometimes that becomes unbearable, and suicide is often the result. Stories such as the following illustrate this tragic result.
In 2018, Lauren Stuart of Keego Harbor, Michigan, killed her husband and two adult children, and then herself. The Stuarts had left their Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall ten years earlier because of disagreement with many doctrines, including their desire to send their children to college. Members are told that higher education is considered dangerous because colleges and universities supposedly expose young adults to immoral behaviors, such as drug abuse, immorality, and cheating.
After leaving the church, the Stuarts were excommunicated and shunned. Joyce Taylor, an ex-Witness and friend of Lauren’s, described her as never having been properly “deprogrammed.“ Left without an effective support system, she eventually was pushed over the edge. The doomsday fears that are promoted in the church had never been resolved, and Lauren may have been reacting to the Witness belief that if you die before Armageddon, you will be resurrected in paradise. Lauren’s suicide note said that she felt killing her family was the only way to save them.
The media coverage of this event brought back terrible memories for Amber Sawyer, another ex-Jehovah’s Witness. When she was eight years old, Amber’s 21-year-old sister, Donna, killed herself with their father’s rifle—only weeks before Donna had been excommunicated from her church for becoming engaged to someone who was not a Jehovah’s Witness. As an adult, Amber became involved in an abusive marriage and sought a divorce. She was excommunicated, and her family cut all ties with her.
QAnon and the Insurrection of January 6th
Christopher Stanton Georgia, a 53-year-old regional manager for a North Carolina bank, participated in the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. He was arrested the following day and criminally charged. Only days after he returned home to Alpharetta, Georgia, his wife found him in the basement of their home with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. While it may not be known what exactly drove Mr. Georgia to commit suicide, given the short time between his arrest in Washington and the day of his death, it is reasonable to conclude that there might be a connection between the two events.
A former QAnon believer, Jitarth Jadeja of Sydney, Australia, spent several years following Q’s predictions and believed and promoted its conspiracy theories. Jadeja was fortunate to have realized he needed to withdraw from the influence of QAnon before he fell further down the rabbit hole. Jadeja told his story to The Washington Post to help others. He freely admitted that the struggle to regain control of his thinking and return to reality was painful, saying, “If I didn’t have a family that loved me, I probably would have committed suicide.“
Scientology – “WOG Medicine“
Scientology is another high-profile cult whose doctrines related to the mental health field can contribute to the risk of suicide. “WOG“ is a racial slur (worthy oriental gentleman) and used as a derogatory term that Ron Hubbard used to refer to anyone who was not a Scientologist. Hubbard taught that psychiatrists denied human spirituality and peddled fake cures, calling them unethical individuals who commit “extortion, mayhem, and murder.“ Scientology had a tremendous amount of bad publicity when they locked up Lisa McPherson, keeping her from medical and psychological help and she died.
Scientology claims regarding medical science, particularly in the mental health field, include:
- Medical professionals are evil and responsible for all the bad in the world.
- A chemical imbalance in the brain is a complete hoax.
- Mind-altering medications should not be used, including those prescribed for depression or other mental issues.
- Mental issues can only be cured through Scientology technology.
I have blogged extensively about my dear friend and colleague, ex Scientologist Jon Atack who authored the definitive book on the cult, entitled Let’s Sell them a Piece of Blue Sky. Actress Leah Remini and Mike Rinder, two high-profile people, get kudos for focusing the public’s attention on Scientology abuses. Unlike Jon, who was recruited as an adult, both Leah and Mike grew up in Scientology. Remini wrote a book about her life in Scientology (Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology) and won 3 Emmys for their documentary series, Scientology and its Aftermath. Mike Rinder, who was a Scientology Board Member and a senior member of the Office of Special Affairs for many years, writes a blog (“Something Can Be Done About It“) to provide truthful information and expose abuses in Scientology as well as provide support for ex-members. Leah and Mike have invited me to be on their most recent effort, a podcast called “Scientology: Fair Game“ on iHeartRadio.
Lessening the Risk of Suicide
According to the CDC, suicide is not caused by a single factor, but most suicide prevention efforts are directed specifically toward improving mental health conditions. (See Link to the full report below.) As was shown by many of the stories, other factors such as relationship problems, life stressors, loss of home, and recent or impending crises are also risk factors. Certainly, the cumulative effect of cult indoctrination and losing the (false) security of a cult could be counted among these factors.
Mental health concerns, particularly when they involve suicidal ideation, should be met with compassionate understanding and professional help. Leaving any authoritarian organization that uses undue influence to maintain its power is a healthy act of self-preservation. Willingness to speak openly and publicly of one’s experience to help others struggling with similar issues should be supported and applauded.
- Preventingsuicide (cdc.gov)
- Vital Signs: Trends in State Suicide Rates — United States, 1999–2016 and Circumstances Contributing to Suicide — 27 States, 2015 | MMWR (cdc.gov)
- He’s a former QAnon believer. He doesn’t want to tell his story, but thinks it might help.
- Trump supporter dead in suspected suicide days after being arrested at Capitol riot | The Independent
General Cult and Undue Influence:
- Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform (Brainwashing, Mind Control) – Freedom of Mind Resource Center
- The Cult: the Meaning of Undue Influence – Freedom of Mind Resource Center
- The Secret Database of Child Molesters – The Atlantic
- Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses say church’s shunning caused too many suicides (freep.com)
- Woman shunned by Jehovah’s Witnesses kills entire family: cops (nypost.com)
- Jon Atack’s YouTube channel
- The Lisa McPherson Trust
- Mike Rinder’s blog on Scientology Deaths and Suicides
- Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath | Netflix
- Leah Remini and Mike Rinder’s podcast Scientology: Fair Game | iHeartRadio