Counseling Cult-Impacted Students

Lorna Goldberg, ACSW
and William Goldberg, ACSW

When a college counselor is approached to help a student with a cultic involvement, effective response will depend upon the stage of cult involvement of the student. The counselor may be approached during the initial recruitment of the cult member, during the active stage of cult involvement, or after the student has decided to leave the group. Since the student is likely to be in a different frame of mind in each of these situations, each requires a different combination of strategies.

Initial Recruitment

First, a counselor may be approached by a student who is uncertain about spending a weekend with a cultic group or who is considering joining such a group. The most important intervention, in this case, is to break the momentum of the organization's recruiting strategy by helping the student to postpone his/her decision. The student's enthusiasm and desire to find an idealistic path should be acknowledged, but the counselor should model an appropriately questioning attitude. Has the student researched the track record of the organization in question or relied on the veracity of the recruiter for this information? Has the student spoken to individuals who are former members to gain their perspective on why they left? It may be helpful to point out to the student similarities in the recruiting process and the student's experiences in other high-pressure sales situations. The dynamics are the same, except that, in this case, the sales person is trying to sell the customer an idea rather than a product. Remind the student that just as a wise consumer doesn't rely on the salesperson for all information on a product, a wise consumer of ideas shouldn't rely solely on a proselytizer. Remember that the student would not approach you for guidance on this issue unless he/she felt some discomfort about joining a group. Your role is to help the student bring these healthy cautionary feelings to the surface. Organizations such as the American Family Foundation can provide you and the student with valuable information on specific groups. reFOCUS, the national organization of former cult members, can also be helpful. Telephone calls to colleagues at other colleges and universities who may have had experience in dealing with this particular group may also be enlightening.

Active Involvement

The student may approach the counselor while in the active stage of cult involvement. Although during this stage the counselor is more likely to be approached by the student's friend, roommate or family than the student him/herself, the student may recognize that something is wrong and seek help from a trusted professional. In this situation, the counselor must, of course, first deal with the issues the student is presenting. As the counselor gains the student's trust, the cult's tenets which are causing problems for the student can be discussed. The counselor's attitude toward the cult should be respectful but questioning (as opposed to critical) of the basic premises upon which the cult's philosophy is based. For example, the counselor may point out that philosophers and theologians have struggled for centuries over the issues which the cult leader claims to have resolved once and for all. The cult leader is not the first in history to have made these claims, and most of the others have been proven to be false prophets. How does the student know that this individual has THE ANSWER? If the student is following his/her gut feeling, ask if his/her gut feelings have ever been wrong. How will the student know when this group is no longer meeting his/her needs? What will the signs be? If the student learns something that casts a different light on the subject, does he/she have the strength to admit a mistake was made? The counselor might ask the student if he/she would be willing to speak with someone who has left this organization or who knows more about it and can offer a different perspective. If the student insists upon first checking with the group's leadership, the counselor should say that this is an excellent opportunity because it will help the student see how much integrity and openness the group has. The counselor can point out that any open organization encourages its members to explore ideas and possibilities; only a group with something to hide would tell people they will be harmed by hearing negative things about it. By framing the issue in this manner the counselor helps the student to question the group's motivations if, indeed, he/she has been told not to speak to a so-called “backslider.” The counselor should attempt to keep the lines of communication open with the cult member even if they disagree about an issue. As long as they continue to engage in a dialogue, there is a chance the cult member can be helped. Focus on the group's methods, not its ideology. For example, it is not wise to engage in a discussion of interpretations of scripture when an individual has joined a Bible cult unless the counselor is a Biblical scholar. Instead, the counselor should attempt to focus the dialogue on concrete issues and on observations of the group's methods. The counselor should grant the student permission to be questioning and skeptical about these practices.

When the Student Leaves a Group

The third situation in which the college counselor is likely to be approached for help in a cultic situation is after the student has decided to leave the group and is trying to resume his/her life and education. The most important task at this point is for the student to see him/herself as someone who temporarily deviated from a career or educational path and not see him/herself primarily as a former cult member. Although it is important, of course, for the student to deal with issues stemming from the past cult membership and residual feelings and symptoms (see Singer, “Coming out of the Cults” and Goldberg and Goldberg, “Group Work with Former Cultists”) it is also important that the student not define him/herself solely as someone who made a terrible mistake by joining a cult. The counselor can be helpful during this period by assisting the student to put the cult experience into perspective. In most cases, cult members do not consciously decide to join a group. Instead, they are tricked and manipulated into joining. The counselor should help the student see that it is unfair to judge him/herself by facts which were not available when the student joined. Many former cult members continue to see the cult and the cult leader as powerful and to fear retribution for leaving the cult. It is helpful for the counselor to point out that the cult has only as much power as the former member is willing to relinquish to it. Role-playing potentially tense situations such as meeting a cult member on campus can be a helpful technique at this time. On the other hand, if the student is interested in speaking out publicly about the cult, this action should be encouraged. It is a healthy way to feel active rather than passive, it reinforces the student's decision to leave, and it performs a public service. In the authors' experience, it is almost always beneficial. Of course, if the student prefers to maintain a low profile, that decision should also be respected. Finally, the counselor can help former cult members by referring them to the network of ex-members. Peers who have lived through similar experiences can often offer more support, advice, and help than professionals. It is very helpful for former cult members to learn that others have survived the experience and have moved on with their lives.


  • Goldberg, Lorna and Goldberg, William. (1982, March).
  • Group Work with Former Cultists. Social Work 27.
  • Singer,Margaret. (January, 1979). Coming Out of the Cults, Psychology Today 12.