On Mental Illness: Persons with Mental Illness and Cults

By Jack Bragen
Saturday March 26, 2011 - 03:21:00 PM

At least in young adulthood, it seems common for a person with a mental illness to seek answers to the predicament of being mentally ill. This leads to a vulnerability to cult followings, since their spiritual teachers usually claim to have all the answers to life’s quandaries. 

Following a spiritual teacher at the least is harmless; a bit worse is when a lot of time is wasted; worse than that is when their flawed belief systems render you unable to survive in the world; even worse is when you get brainwashed and become a full member of the cult, and have devoted your life to furthering their agendas. In my case, twenty years back, I wasted a great deal of my time following two different cult groups that operated in the Bay Area; and I also lost or failed to develop survival skills. Had I never programmed myself with their systems, I might today be much better off than I find myself to be. 

I am not naming the two organizations with which I was involved. However, one of the two was supposedly based on Buddhism, and its ethic was the expectation of relinquishing all demands and desires in life. There was a fairly small group of people in the local part of this group who were friends with me for over a decade. Over time, I discovered that their system was unworkable when applied to life in any realistic sense. I parted ways from them, and then had the impulse to go back, years later. The same group was still there a decade later and they appeared as if they hadn’t aged much. 

When I was at their potluck, one of the members asked me who knew my whereabouts at the moment and was I expected to be anywhere soon. Of course, a red flag went up in my head. My response, which was accurate, was that my wife knew where I went and was expecting a ride home from her friend‘s house when I was done at the potluck. “Of course, we’re not going to keep you here by force,” he said. This to me all added up to say they were considering kidnapping me, and doing something to me. I then immediately, while we were sitting, got my cellphone from my shirt pocket and phoned my wife and I told her to expect me within a half hour. I told the cult member I would be leaving now, and he tried very hard to talk me into staying, but I was insistent to the point of revealing my capacity for psychotic anger. I was outa there. And I haven’t been back, since. 

I haven’t had the same experience with the other “cult” group I was involved with. However, their belief system was as crippling as that of the first cult group. While the first group valued an unattainable complete detachment toward events in life, the second group attributed internal emotional events to being produced by invisible external forces. The behavior of people in the second group appears to be relatively mild, yet might be collectively delusional. 

Mentally ill people often seek spiritual teachings or spiritual groups because these groups usually claim to offer solutions to life’s difficulties. These groups also may seem to have an answer to the question: “What happened to me? What made me mentally ill?” Also, it may be easier for someone who has been psychotic to slip into an alternate belief system compared to some un-afflicted people who are stuck with adhering to one way of interpreting the world. 

As it turns out, life is worth living without the gimmick of filtering it through a special system of beliefs. Not only that, I underestimated myself; I can actually survive and compete in the world of people, I am a good enough person to be accepted in that world, and I do not need the crutch of a pseudo-Buddhist system for this to happen. 

Once again, I invite the readers to contact me with your stories or comments for the column. You can do this care of the Berkeley Daily Planet, or I can be reached directly at: However, I can not provide any advice to individuals.