The Importance of Psychoeducation for Survivors of a Coercive Environment
Updated: May 12
Over the past few years working in the cult recovery field, I've worked with survivors at varying stages of their recovery journey.
Some have just left a coercive environment. Others are 10+ years into their recovery journey.
In both cases, cult survivors have difficulty knowing what options are available to them.
To some degree this makes sense - a coercive environment isn't the best place to see all of the options available to you. When you finally leave a cult, the overwhelm of options and advice can leave you confused and directionless.
This post isn't meant to give direction, but hopefully provide survivors and cult-curious individuals some much needed context as they decide on their next step.
Let's Talk About Therapy
Within the cult recovery field, there is an emphasis on the importance of therapy - as there should be!
However, those fresh out of a coercive environment may not turn to therapy immediately. This can be due to several challenges, which may include:
Former group belief that instilled fear of the scientific or medical community
Not knowing what to expect from therapy or different types of therapeutic modalities
Not knowing what to look for in a mental health professional (e.g. rates, qualifications, specialties)
Beyond these challenges, I have also found that survivors may fundamentally struggle to understand, contextualize, and communicate their experiences. This can become a hurdle that interferes with not only an individual's internal processing, but also complicates their ability to externally process with someone like a licensed mental health professional.
Psychoeducation As A Stop-Gap
Given these hurdles - which are not insignificant - cult aware individuals and exit counselors often find it necessary to provide intermediate steps that develop a person's psychological awareness. This is typically accomplished through psychoeducation.
Dr. Margaret Singer, a cult expert and pioneer in the field of cult recovery, emphasized the importance of not only therapy for cult survivors, but “the primary need for education, specifically psychoeducation”. This remains true today.
I am passionate about the psychoeducational component when working with survivors of coercive control so that they have the foundation that can assist them in moving forward in their cult recovery journey, wherever that takes them.
Perhaps this perspective originates from my time as a case manager while helping those leaving polygamist communities – but I often feel that what I do is “triaging” clients by providing them with a wide range of psychoeducational tools and resources that can serve as a helpful framework to aid in understanding their experience.
Navigating Good and Bad Information
Living in the digital age, information and education about coercion and related topics is more accessible than ever.
The flip side is that the amount of content out there can be overwhelming to navigate alone. Some of the most common questions I have received from survivors include:
Would you consider an abusive family system a cult?
It’s been “X” amount of time, shouldn’t I have been able to move on by now?
I left an abusive group that didn’t have a religious component, would that exclude it from being a cult?
Can a cult be leaderless?
Do I have to define my experience as a “cult” or are there other alternatives?
Do I have to see a therapist who specializes in cult recovery?
Should I write or speak about my experience?
What are my career and schooling options if I want to work in the field of cult recovery?
Understanding one's experience and having a framework to work from can not only be incredibly empowering but also beneficial for additional helping professionals such as therapists in understanding your experience so that they can best address your recovery needs.
I particularly like this quote by Gillie Jenkinson who provides Post-Cult Counselling (PCC):
"It is my belief that, with or without therapy, former cult members are at risk of remaining in psychological and relational limbo for years. If they come to understand how cults operate to control their members’ thinking and behaviour, and they have an opportunity to tell their personal story within a relational, psychoeducational therapy that can over them tools to understand their experience, manage their emotions and process their trauma and loss, there is real hope for recovery of the autonomous self and growth”
Link to her full article here.
It’s incredible that there are mental health therapists such as Gillie Jenkinson who have incorporated psychoeducation into their therapeutic practice when working with survivors of a coercive environment.
Many cult survivors have been able to work with cult-informed therapists who incorporate psycho-education. Alternatively, due to financial constraints or because cult recovery therapists are in short supply, some survivors see therapists who are covered by their insurance who may not be cult specialized but have still received benefit from working with them.
Whether you're looking to aid your own understanding and recovery efforts, or seeking to help someone come to terms with their new reality, access to education is key.
For those who would like to pursue psychoeducation, People Leave Cults is excited to serve as an additional psychoeducational presence. We offer cult survivor consultations so that survivors can determine the best route to move forward in their recovery journey.
We'll also planning to provide regular contributions to our blog here - so be sure to check back!