Choosing A Therapist:

A Guide for the Ex-Jehovah's Witness

Kaynor can be contacted at 

Leaving the Watchtower Society can be a very difficult and stressful experience, as most ex-Jehovah's Witnesses will attest.  The effect of losing one's faith, social group, friends, sense of purpose, and often one's family, often lingers for years after leaving.  Some ex-JWs turn to behaviors that they would never before imagine themselves doing, and often fail to understand: excessive drinking, severe marital problems, gambling, etc.  Others come out of the experience of leaving the WT with less severe problems, but nevertheless experience anxiety, self-doubt, low self-esteem, lack of direction, feelings of alienation, confused belief system, and difficulty adjusting to an entirely new lifestyle.

      Some ex-JWs consider seeking therapy to help them deal with the difficult adjustment to life "in the world," and to help them discover who they really are, what they believe, how being a JW influenced them, and how to create a new and better life with healthier relationships.  However, many ex-JWs have difficulty entering therapy.  They have been taught during their association with the Watchtower to distrust mental health professionals.  If they have been in the Watchtower for a long time, they may even believe that consulting a psychologist or psychiatrist will cause them to risk coming under "demon influence."  Additionally, there are very few mental health professionals who have experience or knowledge of what it is like to be in the Watchtower Society, and to leave it.  In the entire United States, there are only a handful of ex-JWs who have become therapists.  Therefore, I have put together the following suggestions for the ex-JW to consider when looking for a therapist.

      The most important thing to remember is that the therapist works for you!  You hire a professional therapist to help you work on the issues that affect your life.  It is entirely appropriate to question the therapist about how they work in general, their knowledge of Watchtower issues, use of medications, fee, length of sessions, etc.  The therapist may not be able to give you exact answers to all of your questions (such as how long you might expect to be in therapy) but should be willing to discuss the questions you ask, and attempt to understand your concerns.  Many of these questions can be asked in the initial telephone conversation, which should be free of charge.  Discussing these issues should give you time to get a sense of who the therapist is, and to assess whether or not you feel comfortable with him or her.  There are several books on the market that are useful guides for the potential client in what to think about when looking for a therapist, a fine example of which is Jack Engler and Daniel Goleman's "The Consumer's Guide to Psychotherapy" (1992).  Some people find it useful to call two or three therapists in order to chose the person who feels like they can be the most helpful to them.  If you are using a psychotherapy clinic (which may be the case if insurance or limited income is an issue) it may not be possible to chose the therapist you work with, however.  Probably the best way to find a therapist, like a good mechanic or real estate agent, is through a personal reference.  If any of your friends or acquaintances have been in therapy, they may be willing to recommend their therapist, or, their therapist may recommend someone other than themselves if it is not appropriate for them to see you as well.  Your doctor may also know of competent therapists in your community who can help you.

      Many clients find it reassuring to receive a written statement from a therapist briefly describing what they do, how much they charge, telephone and cancellation policies, limits of confidentiality, etc.  Also, it is important that the therapist you see be licensed or registered in the area that you live in.  Unfortunately, there are some people who hold themselves out as therapists who have little training and who are practicing illegally or unethically. Your therapist should have their registration number available to you in some manner.  A low cost alternative available in some states, is to work with a registered psychotherapy intern.  These are people who are not yet licensed, and usually work under the supervision of a senior clinician.  If you chose to work with an intern, it is important that they have adequate training and experience, and you should be informed of their status and their supervisor's name.

      It is important that mental health professionals, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family counselors, clinical social workers, or substance abuse counselors, become familiar with the unique issues that an ex-JW brings to therapy.  It is perfectly legitimate to ask a therapist if they have any knowledge of the Watchtower or of authoritarian religions or cults that use mind control techniques.  There are a number of books that therapists might find helpful, including Jerry Bergman's "Jehovah's Witnesses and the Problem of Mental Illness," (1992), "Combating Cult Mind Control," by Steve Hassan (1988), and Leonard and Marjorie Chretien's "Witnesses of Jehovah:  A shocking expose of what Jehovah's Witnesses really believe,"(1988), to name but a few.  A subscription to one of the newsletters such as The Free Minds Journal (bi-monthly) might also be helpful to a therapist willing to educate him/herself about the Watchtower's effects on its members.  Additionally, there are a number of videos about the Watchtower Society available (obtainable through The Free Minds Journal) that can be very helpful to a therapist who does not have any knowledge of the WT.

      Probably the most important factor in a successful therapeutic relationship is the sense of comfort and trust you feel when you begin to work with a therapist. Not all therapists and clients are meant to work together.  Of course, if you don't like any therapist you interview, then perhaps it's time to go ahead and make a contract with a therapist and discuss why you are having such a difficult time getting started in therapy.  When reflecting on your first session, ask yourself, "Am I comfortable?  Does he or she respond to me in a manner that makes me feel respected, cared about, and listened to?  Is this a place where I can imagine exploring scary or difficult issues and feeling supported?"  A sense of trustworthiness, respect, genuineness and just plain "good chemistry" is essential for therapy to work, and it is important to pay attention, from the very first phone call, to how you feel in your interactions with the therapist.  For, in the end, the most important thing is that your therapist be committed to helping you to grow and learn, and to become the best and happiest possible YOU that you can be.

 Bergman, J. (1992).  Jehovah's Witnesses and the problem of mental illness. Clayton, CA:  Witness Inc.

 Chretien, L., & Chretien, M. (1988).  Witnesses of Jehovah.  A shocking expose of what Jehovah's Witnesses really believe.  Eugene, OR:  Harvest House.

 Engler, J., & Goleman, D. (1992).  The consumer's guide to psychotherapy.  New York:   Simon & Schuster

 Hassan, S. (1988).  Combating cult mind control.  Rochester, VT:  Park Street Press.

 Watters, R. (Ed.) (bi-monthly).  The Free Minds Journal.  Manhattan Beach, CA.  (310) 545-7831.


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