SWEDEN

Per G. SWARTLING

- Former General Practitioner
- Medical Director of the "National Board of Health and Welfare"

Psychiatric Problems in Ex-Members of the Faith movement Word of Life

Introduction

Word of Life started about 20 years ago in Uppsala, Sweden, and has about 2000 active members. Considerably more people are interested and the regular conferences gather often more than 5000 people. The children of the members go to the private school of Word of Life instead of the ordinary school. Many persons from the whole country, where there are satellite congregations, visit the Bible school of the movement for one or two years.

People who leave the Faith movement – represented in Sweden by Word of Life – or begin to doubt the doctrines, may display serious and long-term psychiatric problems that necessitate contact with a physician. In 1991 my wife and I published an interview study with former bible school students in the journal of the Swedish Medical Association. The article was then published in the Cultic Studies Journal in 1992. The study may be considered to be a bit old but in fact no more study has been published in Sweden although our study was heavily criticised by the movement and its supporters.

Some doctrines of Word of Life

In order to understand the group of former bible school students in our study it is essential to know some of the characteristics of Word of Life doctrines. These doctrines are always denied from the leaders (and the believers) in contact with people outside the movement. Some of the more spectacular and for ordinary people offensive manifestations, for example exorcism, have been less common in order to try to become accepted as an ordinary Pentecostal Church. In our contact with ex-members who left the movement recently it is obvious that the main doctrines are still working. Word of Life has not yet become accepted in the ecumenical co-operation in Uppsala, Sweden.

So which are the doctrines?

There are constant reminders in the teaching that God himself is the source of everything that is said or done in the movement. Therefore, anybody criticising Word of Life, or its leadership, goes against God. Examples are given showing that bad things can happen to anyone who criticises the movement and to members who leave it: they will be outside the protection of God and may suffer illness, misfortune, accidents, sudden death or have deformed children. Anyone who takes the teaching seriously is caught in a self-perpetuating grip that can be very difficult to get out of. The fear of speaking negatively of Word of Life may remain for a long time after the person has left the movement.

The responsibility to keep away the Devil and evil spirits or demons rests solely on the believer, according to Word of Life. This task is carried out regularly by speaking harshly to the demons. There are demons of illness, demons of criticism and demons of sexual lust for example. If the believer fails to avert the attacks of the demons, the individual readily assumes the blame and may despair of any help. The member may think that it is not possible to stop the Devil and this will cause anxiety and anguish.

Another doctrine states that you get what you say, which means that the words you speak have the power to change reality, so called positive confession. If you say that you are ill or do not feel well, you will, according to the doctrine, feel even worse, that is negative confession. This makes it difficult for a member to seek help in the case of depression with suicidal thoughts, for example, because if you speak about your thoughts they may become true. This would also make it very difficult or impossible to get sincere answers if one would try to interview believers about possible psychiatric problems.

In order to gain health, as promised in the teaching, you are to act as if you already attained it. If you are depressed, you are to look happy and healthy. Some people become so trained in showing an unaffected face and in denying depressive thoughts that it can be difficult to assess their actual state of mind for example during a brief consultation at a doctor.

Interview study with 43 former Bible school students

During the late 80th my wife and I had personal and in many cases extensive contact with more than one hundred former followers of the Faith movement all over Sweden, most of them from Uppsala. They contacted us, mainly my wife, because they did not feel well and needed help. Seventy persons had attended a Bible school belonging to the Faith movement for a period of one or two years, the majority in Uppsala with teachers from Word of Life. Six persons declined to participate or had returned to the movement, 21 could not be reached or were not psychologically fit for an interview. 43 former Bible school students could be interviewed.

In the interview group of 43 persons the gender distribution was even and the younger age group dominated with 80% under 25 years of age. The interview group was homogenous in that all had received the same kind of systematic Bible school instruction. The interview was semi-structured, that is, the same questions were used for everyone; yet there was room for expansion and deeper penetration. The result is a combination of answers and personal observations. The interviews were performed by my wife Gudrun who is an Occupational Therapist. She has worked with psychotic patients during many years which has been valuable in assessing psychiatric symptoms.

Previous social contacts broken.

Deterioration of contact with families and friends after joining the movement was reported by 85% of the interviewed. Also, to a large extent, many had ceased keeping themselves informed through radio, television or daily newspapers and had given up their former interests. Often their financial status had deteriorated, sometimes drastically, because of the generous offering in Word of Life´s collection, in addition to the tithing, that is giving one tenth of your income to the movement.

Psychiatric symptoms

Those interviewed were asked about symptoms they had experienced after contact with the movement and which had not caused any problem before. The new symptoms are reported in the following tables (Table 1A and 1B). In 60% of the cases, other persons, for instance parents, noticed a change in appearance after the individual had joined the movement. Body posture became tense, with a frozen facial expression and eyes that were staring or had an absent or evasive look. In 35% of the cases regression was observed.

Almost everybody suffered of anxiety and especially panic attacks. Nightmares with sleeping disorders, fear of losing the sanity and feeling of emptiness was also very common. Three out of four students had difficulty to concentrate and this could continue a long time after they had left the movement. A feeling of lost identity was reported by six students out of ten. Almost everybody complained of difficulty to handle emotions.

The majority of the students found it difficult to make decisions. After leaving the movement they had to make their own decisions and could not ask the movement or the pastor about the right answer any more. Almost everybody had feelings of guilt. Many had difficulties with social contacts, not the least with the opposite sex.

Psychosomatic symptoms were common during the time in Bible school and during the time immediately afterward. Stomach pain, heart palpitations, headache and dizziness, which had not been a problem before were reported by 63% of the interviewed. Two students out of three had experienced suicidal thoughts and one out of four had made a serious suicide attempt. At that time we had knowledge of 16 suicide cases in Sweden where family and friends regarded the contact with the movement of the deceased person as the determining factor in the suicide. This conclusion was supported by previous conversations or letters left behind. During the following years we have been told that a number of further suicides of the same reason have occurred.

Psychosis-like symptoms were reported by almost half of the students. These symptoms were loss of sense of reality, pathological assumption of guilt (in addition to the almost obligatory feeling of guilt of wrongdoing) and auditory and visual hallucinations.

Psychiatric care

The psychiatric care which was given is reported in Table 2. Prior to Bible school seven students (16%) had been in contact with a psychiatrist. In four of the cases this contact was brief due to an acute crisis, one having hospital care for three days.

After leaving the movement 27 former students (63%) sought psychiatric help because of problems they attributed to their contact with Word of Life; six of them had been in need of psychiatric help prior to their involvement in the movement. In 16 cases the patients were treated in out-patient clinics. Eleven former students received in-patient psychiatric care. Six of those were, according to Swedish law, committed to involuntary psychiatric care.

The length of stay in psychiatric clinic (hospital) is shown in Table 3. Four students stayed in hospital 1 – 4 weeks, two students 1 – 3 months and four students more than 3 months

Medication, usually benzodiazepines and antidepressants, was prescribed to 28 of the interview group (43 persons). Neuroleptics were used in 10 cases, without noticeable effect according to the opinion of the interviewed.

Sick leave attributed to involvement with the movement was reported by 24 persons (56%) See Table 4. In two thirds of the cases, the sick leave extended beyond two months and for four patients it lasted several years.

Discussion

Many in the interview group who had left Word of Life have demonstrated severe and sometimes long-term psychiatric disorders. Similar problems have been recognised in ex-members of other cults such as the Unification Church, Hare Krishna and the Church of Scientology. Our Study did not illustrate how common psychiatric disorders are in the group of Bible school students as a whole. Interview with active members of Word of Life would not be enlightening since, according to the teaching, they are not to admit that they suffer from depression or other symptoms of illness. On the contrary, in the movement, disorders such as anxiety and lack of a will to live, are explained or described as attacks by the Devil or the influence of demons. According to doctrine psychiatric disorders are not to be viewed as warning signals bur rather as a sign that one is working for God and therefore is subject to attacks.

It is difficult for physicians without any experience or knowledge of cults to assess patients with psychiatric problems that possibly are related to involvement with Word of Life (and other similar cults). The strong influence of the doctrine and the leadership on the members can result in very severe disorders, sometimes with symptoms similar to schizofrenia, sometimes long-term psychological insufficiencies. It is a risk that these patients will be treated mainly with drugs suitable for psychosis, neuroleptics for example, and will get no opportunity to talk about all the difficult problems related to the cult. There is a risk that these individuals will require extended sick leave (15 out of 43 persons in the interview group had a sick leave of more than two months).

Knowledge of the movement and its teaching is essential in order to understand the crises and symptoms of these patients. Because of their own experience former members have the necessary insights to disclose the dogma and the rules that bind a person to the group and cause doubt regarding one´s own judgement. According to those interviewed, contact with ex-members is invaluable and is often regarded as essential for the return to normal life. Obviously medical interventions are needed also, such as hospital supervision during crisis with the risk of suicide.

In the late 80th there was no collected competence centre in Sweden where ex-members from cults could get counselling and rehabilitation and where psychiatrists could get advice in the acute treatment of ex-members admitted to hospital. About 15 ex-members from different sects, mainly Word of Life, were sent to Wellspring in USA for rehabilitation. In the beginning of the 90th a Member of Parliament, Professor Barbro Westerholm, introduced a bill for investigating how to support and help people with health problems in connection with certain new religious movements.

The investigation should also propose how to prevent these health problems and how to punish spiritual and mental violation. The discussion in Parliament showed how "loaded" the issue is. Specially Christian Members of Parliament talked about the importance to protect religious freedom and did not want to map out the new religious movements. The investigators were also contacted intensely by representatives of the different movements. A burglar from a movement stole documents from Barbro Westerholm´s office in Parliament.

The result of the investigation was a proposal in 1998 to the Government to institute a centre of knowledge in conception of life and faith. The task for the centre should be to promote a dialog between the religious movements and the rest of society and to train personnel. Nothing at all has happened from the Government. The proposal was a big disappointment anyway. We wanted a centre that could develop knowledge how to help persons with severe psychiatric problems related to cults, not a centre for dialog with the cults and research in religious movements.

In January this year Sweden was shocked by a murder performed by a member of a very closed sect in a little village, Knutby, a few miles from Uppsala. The sect regarded themselves as a Pentecostal congregation. A young woman has admitted that she shot the wife of the head pastor of the sect and the wife was killed. She also shot a male member of the sect and he was seriously wounded. She has not yet told any motive for the murder. It has been disclosed that the pastor and the wife of the shot man had a love affair and the motive of the murder is still under investigation. A suspicion is that the pastor could be involved in the murder and the woman who performed the murder was under the influence of him. According to the doctrines of the sect divorce is not allowed. All members of the sect believed in the beginning that the pastor was innocent and that the story of love affair was a lie. The wife of the shot man has now admitted that she and the pastor had a love affair. The sect has now condemned the pastor and removed him from his leadership. The doctrines of the sect in Knutby are very similar to the doctrines of the Word of Life and at least two of the pastors have attended the Bible school of Word of Life. In the forensic psychiatric examination of the woman who admitted the murder the psychiatrists have different opinions if she has a psychiatric illness or not. We do not know the outcome yet.

In conclusion

Severe and often long-standing psychiatric problems have been recognised in former students of the Word of Life Bible School. Almost half of the 43 individuals interviewed had experienced psychosis-like symptoms and one out of four had attempted suicide. There is a need in Sweden to get a competence centre where experience of sect problems can be combined with ordinary psychiatric care. To the centre should be connected a rehabilitation unit similar to Wellspring in USA.

We also need a new legislation that puts the needs and care for the affected in focus, and gives us the possibility to protect children from unhealthy influence from manipulative groups. This way it would also be possible to prosecute people that have caused members in a destructive cult severe psychological illness.

Marseilles, March 2004

Table 1A

New psychiatric symptoms in former Bible school students (N = 43)

Anxiety, especially panic attacks

40 (93 %)

Nightmares, sleeping disorders

37 (86 %)

Fear of losing one´s sanity

33 (77 %)

Feeling of emptiness

38 (88 %)

Difficulty concentrating

32 (75 %)

Feeling loss of

Identity

26 (60 %)

Difficulty handling emotions

39 (91 %)

Table 1B

New psychiatric symptoms in former Bible school students (N = 43)

 

Number/per-cent

Difficulty making decisions

32 (74 %)

Feelings of guilt

40 (93 %)

Difficulty with social contacts

31 (72 %)

Regression

15 (35 %)

Psychosomatic symptoms

27 (63 %)

Suicidal thoughts

27 (63 %)

Attempted suicide

10 (23 %)

Psychosis-like symptoms

20 (47 %)

Table 2

Psychiatric care among former Bible school students (N = 43)

 

Before Bible school

After Bible school

 

Number/per-cent

Number/per-cent

Contact with a psychiatrist

7 (16 %)

27 (63 %)

Care in psychiatric clinic or mental hospital

1 (2 %)

11 (26 %)

Table 3

Length of stay in a psychiatric clinic (hospital) by former Bible school students (11 students received care)

Length of stay

Number

Less than 1 week

1

1 – 4 weeks

4

1 – 3 months

2

More than 3 months

4

Table 4

Sick leave due to cult problems in former Bible school students

(24 out of 43 interviewed (56 %) required sick leave)

Length of sick leave

Number

Less than 2 months

9

2 – 6 months

7

6 – 12 months

3

More than 12 months

5