Attack Therapy

Attack therapy, verbal attack therapy, emotional haircut, confrontation/confrontational therapy,  milieu therapy aka intensive peer pressure therapy, synanon “game”, group truth-telling session – these are synonyms of same thing – highly confrontational interaction between the patient and a therapist, or between the patient and fellow patients during group therapy, where the patient may be verbally abused, denounced, ridiculed or humiliated by the therapist or other members of the group. Many of the individuals under such therapy need therapy afterwards for PSTD, depression, anxiety and so on.

What caught my attention is not so much therapy itself as I can see how it could be beneficial in some cases as self-reflection tool, but how wide-spread it is in historical context and forced upon unwitting people – to the point that even religion started solely on such therapy (church of synanon).

It comes from invention of therapeutic community concept during WWII in England military psychiatric hospital during Northfield Experiments. The idea was to try something radically new to enable more veterans to return to battlefield by moving away from monopoly of healing by doctor to healing by communitarian social order. Northfield experiments didn’t seem to use attack therapy, but started the trend of community as doctor where focus shifted from sick person to the group social psychology. Doctors from Northfield went on to work in Tavistock Institute (which is the source of many crazy Internet conspiracies).

Therapeutic communities (sometimes also called rehab) sprung up as a method to deal with those who abuse drugs and alcohol, mental illness and behavioral problems. Many of them are faith-based initiatives, enjoy tax exempt status and do not have to face government scrutiny. Even with overwhelming evidence of abuse it is very hard for survivors to bring them to justice as such institutions are considered “last-ditch” approach to those who go there for help. People making accusations have less credibility and power than those being accused. At the same time we can’t put blank blame statement on all therapeutic communities – some of them in fact might be helpful. I guess it’s important to see linguistic manipulation of how something horrible could be presented and portrayed as humanistic and beneficial. Some of the concepts like lifetime rehabilitation concept – meaning you have to stay in the treatment for life goes against the main idea of therapy itself (red flag).

These initiatives are huge businesses and corporations, enjoying huge profits. The organization that used attack therapy to extreme was Synanon. It was successful corporation, enjoying healthy profits, drawing federal funds and there were many others who based their “therapeutic” model on synanon. Control over members occurred through the “Game”. The “Game” have been considered to be a therapeutic tool, likened to a form of group therapy; or else to a form of a “social control”, where members humiliated one another and encouraged the exposure of one another’s innermost weaknesses, or maybe both. I couldn’t find a single video of attack therapy or synanon game on YouTube, so I’m not sure how it looks like in the real life. Here is one persons account on how attack therapy drove him to suicide (wasn’t synanon game – it was group therapy in the therapists office):

Things then took a dramatic turn for the worse after I attended a type of group therapy which comes under the general name of ‘Attack Therapy’. It is perhaps difficult to see how a therapy session could trigger psychosis. As you can guess from the title, this type of therapy is where the therapist actually attacks the client. In the intensive therapy sessions I attended, and with the tacit approval of the group, the therapist attacked me hoping to bring about a crisis point in me that would then clear the way to a dramatic ‘improvement’ in my personality. Unfortunately this improvement could only be reached by making me fully realize how fake and pathetic my current personality was. Such an approach perhaps wouldn’t affect a confident person too much, but it affected me, as at the time I was looking for some way to change my personality, and I desperately lacked self-esteem and confidence.I would normally feel very tentative about applying any blame to an external event or person, as this is something that as a person I very rarely do. I am much more likely to blame myself entirely for things going wrong rather than other people.Unfortunately, I think that sort of thinking made me the worst client for this course, as it really affects people like me, who deep down think that everything really is their fault. The effect of the course was so comprehensive that 2 weeks afterwards I tried to kill myself despite never having had a suicidal thought before that day. The message I suppose is twofold. Firstly you need to be careful if you tend to blame yourself for everything that goes wrong as this sort of behavior can lead to sudden bouts of powerful depression. Secondly, avoid any groups or individuals that offer any sort of ‘Attack Therapy’, as it is dangerous for your mental health. This style of therapy is apparently still quite popular in America, even though studies have been done which back up my belief that they can be very damaging to a certain percentage of the population, and show no overall benefit

Attack therapy so far has only been used in institutionalized settings – therapeutic communities, group therapy and so on. It must be like controlled meditation on social stigma and self-esteem. Therapist who doesn’t understand his client could easily become “the rapist” if he prescribes such therapy when client is not ready to face such “treatment”. There are no accounts of Synanon employing their “game” on outside folks – they resorted to real violence, sometimes resembling scenes from the movie clockwork orange. Former synanon residents started various other organizations: Narcotics Anonymous, Delancey Street, Walden House, Samaritan Village in Brooklyn, Amity Foundation, Marvins Corner in Miami or Phoenix House, etc..

I have strange feeling about such therapy. One one hand it could be useful, although it could be extremely damaging especially in the forced settings. Modern society has moved away from institutionalization and growing number of voices are vocal about alternatives to incarceration as methods to deal with issues related to social and behavioral problems are more and more implemented and intertwined into community itself. Something could be labeled in many ways, but the object of the label is never the label.

Attack Therapy

information The Rick A. Ross Institute has gathered about Synanon.

Lawyer who dealt with Synanon

Discovery of therapeutic community. The Northfield Experiments (local copy)

Medical Whistleblower: Abuse and Neglect in U.S.A. Residential Treatment Centers (local copy)

Widespread Abuse, Neglect and Death in Small Settings Serving People with Intellectual Disabilities (local copy)


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