WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE FOR COUNSELORS OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES?
“I’m a licensed counselor and my client is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What advice would you give to a therapist/counselor working with current or former members of Jehovah Witnesses?”
We appreciate your request for information on how to best counsel current and former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To help you, we’ve compiled a list of questions and answers below:
- What typically motivates Jehovah’s Witness clients to seek counseling?
- What are some of the difficulties one might encounter when working with current or former members of religious groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
- Do you find that the teachings of religious groups interfere with the client’s acceptance of counseling? If so, what techniques might you use to help overcome reluctance?
- How can counselors work to prevent their own religious views and personal opinions regarding a particular religious group from inhibiting their work with a client?
- What specific techniques have you found particularly helpful when working with former or current members of religious control groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses?
- What strategies seem to be effective when working with people whose family and social network may be “against” the client seeking therapy?
- What general advice would you give to new therapists/counselors working with current or former members of a religious group like the Jehovah Witnesses?
It has been said that Jehovah’s Witnesses child custody battles account for nearly 50% of all divorce custody cases in America. Due to the performance pressures the Watchtower exerts on its members, research has shown that the rate of mental illness among Jehovah’s Witnesses is significantly higher than that of the general population as a whole.
Dr. Spencer, a psychiatrist who examined hospital admissions in Australia, concluded that the case of paranoia schizophrenia among Jehovah’s Witnesses is four times higher than non-Jehovah’s Witnesses. Studies done by Swiss psychiatrist Janner, Swedish psychiatrist Dr. Rylander and an American study by Precore all concluded that the rate of mental illness among Jehovah’s Witnesses is 32-40 times higher than the rest of the population.
Thus, it is evident that involvement in the Watchtower organization contributes to the overall mental health of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is not uncommon for Jehovah’s Witnesses to seek counseling for depression, sex abuse, family and/or marital problems. Since our ministry offers spiritual help for individuals leaving the Watchtower, we also encounter a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking answers to questions they have about God and spirituality.
The biggest difficulty is helping them overcome the emotional and psychological damage of a religious system that manipulates constituents through fear, guilt and cultic mind control. As outlined by Steven Hassan in his book, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, cults manipulate followers in four basic elements. These involve a personal’s behavior, thought patterns, emotions and the information he or she is allowed to receive. For information on how the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses utilizes these mind control techniques on followers, see the following link on our website:
- Are Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower Followers) a Cult? (4witness.org)
As a counselor or therapist working with a Jehovah’s Witness client, it is important for you to be aware of some of the specific ways in which Jehovah’s Witnesses have been conditioned to respond in accordance with Watchtower doctrine and policies. The article mentioned above is a good place to start, but we will discuss a few issues below that are common areas of struggle for Jehovah’s Witnesses in a counseling situation:
FEAR OF THE OUTSIDE WORLD:
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been told to avoid friendships with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses and to look to the leaders of the Watchtower organization for guidance in many areas of their physical and spiritual lives. This leads to an isolationist mentality and makes it difficult for them to seek help outside the confines of their religious organization. Thus, it can take a while before a Jehovah’s Witness will overcome his or her fear of the outside world enough to seek help from a professional counseling service, and some never do get to this place.
DIFFICULTY MAKING DECISIONS:
Due to the authoritarian nature of their religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses are instructed to trust the guidance of their leadership with no questions asked. They are told to avoid critical attitudes or “independent thinking” that is contrary to the group mindset. All details of Jehovah’s Witness belief and practice are spelled out in clear black and white terms. So, when Jehovah’s Witnesses are put in situations where they must do their own critical thinking and analysis of issues that involve gray areas — where the right answers are not clearly defined — Jehovah’s Witnesses often experience fear and emotional stress, being unsure of their ability to determine the best course of action. This is especially true in cases where fear of having the “wrong” answer holds them back from making clear, decisive decisions.
INABILITY TO RELAX:
The goals and purposes of the Watchtower organization take precedence over the personal needs and desires of the individual. This can lead to extreme physical and emotional exhaustion and an inability to relax and take time off for personal recuperation, without feeling guilty over not serving the organization during this “free time.”
DIFFICULTY CONNECTING WITH HUMAN EMOTIONS:
At all cost, Jehovah’s Witnesses learn how to stifle negative emotions in reference to the organization and to present a “happy” image to the public. They have been conditioned to protect the reputation of the Watchtower organization, even to the extent of personal detriment. For example, Silent Lambs (www.silentlambs.org), an organization dedicated to exposing child abuse in the Watchtower, has documented numerous cases where innocent victims of child abuse have been silenced with the threat of lawsuits or being ostracized from the organization if they speak of their experience publicly. Since emotions have been stifled and manipulated in this way, a Jehovah’s Witness client may have difficulty getting in touch with his or her inner being and emotions.
Thus, we have found that the first step in helping Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with the spiritual abuse they have endured in the organization is to educate them on the aspects of cultic mind control and how spiritual abuse occurs in a controlling religious system. Once they understand what they have been through and why they feel the way they do, they are then able to process the steps needed for physical and emotional healing.
As noted in the examples discussed above, Jehovah’s Witnesses struggle with many physical and emotional issues stemming from the mind control techniques used in the Watchtower organization. Along with these issues, organizational doctrine and policies interfere because the Watchtower claims to be God’s “channel of communication” to followers. So, going against the organization’s guidance is seen as going against God Himself! To add to this false authority structure, the Watchtower misinterprets Bible Scripture to support its authoritarian claims. Thus, helping a person find freedom from physical and emotional bondage involves not only a discussion of cult control techniques, but also a discussion of the Scripture verses the Watchtower has misapplied. See the following link for examples of Scripture misused by the Watchtower and how to help a Jehovah’s Witness overcome this thinking:
Since active members of Jehovah’s Witnesses are very sensitive to people who would try to persuade them to distrust the Watchtower organization, extra caution is needed in discussing these issues. As you discuss cult manipulation and control techniques with such a person, it is often helpful to focus on how other non-Jehovah’s Witness religious groups use these techniques, and then to ask questions that lead the individual Jehovah’s Witness to the personal conclusion that his or her organization also employs these techniques.
We believe that the fundamental reason most people get into cults is due to the fact that they are looking for a relationship with God and the security of a religion that tells them how to live to have God’s approval upon their life. Because people long to have the security of a religion telling them how to live and what to think, we believe this is what causes cults to be so attractive to people. Thus, we believe that freedom from cult groups involves not only a discussion of cult control techniques but also a discussion of spiritual and religious beliefs.
How can a counselor keep his or her personal views about the religion from inhibiting his or her work with a client? We suggest that you ask open-ended questions when the subject of religion comes up in the course of conversation. Since active members of Jehovah’s Witnesses are sensitive to people who may try to persuade them into believing doctrines contrary to the Watchtower organization, asking questions can help the Jehovah’s Witness come to his or her own conclusion that the religion’s doctrinal interpretations are illogical. Since this would be their own conclusion, you wouldn’t be blamed for forcing your religious opinions on them.
Another way you can avoid your personal spiritual views from affecting counseling work is to recommend good books that deal with Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. One we use a lot in our ministry is Ron Rhodes’ book, Reasoning from the Scriptures with Jehovah’s Witnesses. An open-minded client (likely one who has recently left the Watchtower) could find this book helpful in addressing the many misapplied Bible Scriptures used by the Watchtower.
You might also consider reading this Ron Rhodes’ book just so that you can be aware of how the Watchtower manipulates Scripture to support its incorrect presuppositions. This book will prepare anyone for the significant doctrinal issues that may come up in counseling Jehovah’s Witnesses, and if you’re prepared by reading this book, you will know how to ask effective questions to challenge their thinking in a non-forceful way.
This book is available through our website and most bookstores nationwide. Another good resource we recommend for counselors is our DVD seminar JW Questions: Answering Questions Your Jehovah’s Witness Friends Ask. This seminar goes beyond the typical Jehovah’s Witness objections addressed in Ron Rhodes book into specific areas of stronghold in Watchtower thinking. We feel it is a great tool to use along with Ron Rhodes’ book in discussing religious issues with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both resources are available through our website.
We have found the Steven Hassan’s BITE model as well as Robert Lifton’s 8 Criteria of Mind Control as documented in chapter 22 of his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, helpful in educating on cult techniques. The fact that neither tool mentions religious groups by name can be particularly helpful when working with current members like Jehovah’s Witnesses who are programmed to automatically reject therapy that degrades the Watchtower religion. Our “Are You Under the Influence” list of questions found in our “What is a Cult?” article can help determine unhealthy religious control characteristics of cults. The list is based on Lifton’s criteria of mind control and because it doesn’t specifically mention religious groups by name, this article can be a great place to start in helping current and former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses understand cult control techniques:
- What is a Cult? (4witness.org)
We also have a comparison chart that we use to demonstrate the difference between a cultic religious structure and a healthy Biblical structure. Because this chart documents the way Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon religions employ cult control techniques, it is best to wait until the individual Jehovah’s Witness has begun to understand the cult control in his or her religious system before presenting this chart. You can download this chart and other tools from our website at the following links:
Because the Watchtower tends to divide active members from non-Jehovah’s Witness relatives, non-Jehovah’s Witness relatives tend to be supportive of any attempt to “help” restore the relationship they once had with active Jehovah’s Witness loved ones prior to involvement in the religion.
However, this is not the case with active Jehovah’s Witnesses whose family members are involved in the organization. Since seeking help “outside” the Watchtower tends to be discouraged by the organization, active Jehovah’s Witness family members may put pressure on a Jehovah’s Witness client to avoid counseling and to remedy all physical and emotional issues with more involvement in the Watchtower organization’s study and activity programs.
In these cases where Jehovah’s Witness family members and/or social Jehovah’s Witness networks begin to influence a client’s willingness to undergo therapy, it may be beneficial to discuss our material on cult control and to help the client understand how the pressure they are receiving from their Jehovah’s Witness network is identical to the milieu control found in cult groups. If you can bring a client to the understanding of how milieu control is being used within his or her religious system, you have accomplished the first step in helping the client stand up to the pressures they face with their Jehovah’s Witness family and friends.
In the world of psychology, it is not uncommon for people who have been raised in an abusive family structure to marry an abusive spouse, continuing the cycle of abuse. Such phenomenon is not uncommon with people who leave a spiritual abusive system, such as a cult. Without proper emotional and spiritual support and education, many awake years later to find themselves in yet another cult. Thus, there are two keys counselors and therapists need to understand in working with current and former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a holistic way:
- KEY 1: They need to first understand the cult control the Watchtower has over its followers so that they can educate the cultist on the techniques of cultic control and help the individual learn how to think and make decisions apart from the control of his or her religious leaders. Along with this, the counselor should help the person identify what made him or her susceptible to the manipulation of the cult group so that the emotional fear and guilt triggers that the cult group utilizes can be disabled, preventing further manipulation in the mind and heart of the individual.
- KEY 2: The client will need to have his or her spiritual needs met in a healthy, grace-filled environment before he or she can experience true freedom in all areas of life and avoid being attracted to similar alternative cults that would seek to bring the client under the same type of control he or she was just released from. Thus, we recommend that counselors working with Jehovah’s Witnesses become familiar with ministries that specialize in spiritual alternatives for former Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have seen that when Jehovah’s Witnesses learn how to have a one-on-one relationship with God through Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the Bible, they are no longer susceptible to the dictates of a man-made church or organization and are empowered to embrace freedom in all areas of life.
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