Because major coverage of religious cults has for the most part disappeared from the media, many people probably believe that the phenomenon also has dropped off.

Not so, says psychiatric social worker and "destructive cult" expert Jean Merritt. In fact, she says, recruitment could be on the rise. And summertime, when high-school and college students tend to be more on their own, is a prime time for indoctrination.

After the heavy press coverage of the 1978 People's Temple massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, the public went on "systems overload," says Merritt, "and didn't want to hear any more about it.

"The misfortune is that cults are just as strong today, and there is a whole new group of vulnerable kids that were too young to be aware of the cult coverage a few years ago.

"When I talk about cults," she says, "I'm talking about those that are destructive in the sense that the individual's ego is hampered. I don't have the least concern about their religious beliefs. They have a right to believe whatever they want."

"Destructive cults, she says, tend to recruit normal, healthy highschool and college students from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds who have no significant emotional disturbances in their past, but are going through a temporary depression at the time they are approached.

The recruits are often intelligent, idealistic and altruistic young people whose "typically middle-class values, help get them into trouble." Taught to be open and friendly and to trust other people, these kids "have never learned," says Merritt, "how to recognize a con." Young people are especially vulnerable when traveling because they tend to be friendlier and more willing to accept free food and lodging.

Merritt, 35, has been counseling ex-cultists and their families since 1973, when she was living in Boston and first learned of the cult phenomenon. A recent transplant to the Washington area, she also works as a free-lance market analyst and management consultant.

In Boston a friend who worked for the Massachusetts governor had received a call from a mother alarmed because her child and those of several other friends had joined cults. Knowing that Merritt had a background in religion, psychology and social work -- she has a bachelors degree from New York University in psychology and religion and a masters degree from Columbia University School of Social Work -- Merritt's friend referred the parents to her.

Merritt says she expected the parents to be "overprotective, overzealous middle-class parents who were upset that their kids were not falling into the middle-class fold." Instead she found a group of "level-headed, decent people."

The parents introduced Merritt to several members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Merritt says she believed "something weird was going on." The Moonies she met acted "defensive" and spoke with a "sing-song inflection" with voices devoid of regional differences, though they were from different parts of the country. They answered her questions, Merritt recalls, with "seemingly programmed responses."

Intrigued and concerned, Merritt went on to counsel dozens of cult members and ex-cultists from various groups. In an attempt to sort out cult members' bizarre behavior, she also consulted extensively with a colleague who specializes in behavior modification. She eventually concluded that most cult members she saw had one thing in common: "They were victims of coercive mind control."

"Destructive cults," she says, "employ a systematic methodology that often destroys an individual's ego, or the ability to exercise free will."

Some cults, she claims, accomplish this by physically and emotionally isolating members from previous support groups such as friends and family; or by manipulating guilt feelings and denigrating idiosyncratic or individualistic behavior; or by controlling day-to-day life, including eating and sleeping patterns.

Although this is done under the "guise" of religion, Merritt stresses that destructive cults differ drastically from legitimate religions which "offer a moralistic and spiritual framework that becomes one part of somebody's life," while cults generally take over on a 24-hour-a-day basis.

Also, legitimate religions generally adhere to the law, while some destructive cults "consider themselves, without question, above civil statutes."

"Their loyalty is to their individual leader and not to society's institutions."

Merritt's list of "destructive cults" -- based on "anywhere from a half-dozen to hundreds of interviews with members" -- active in the Washington area includes the Unification Church and its college-based affiliate, the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP); The Way International; Hare Krishna; Divine Light Mission; The Church of Scientology; Happy Healthy and Holy, and the Black Hebrew Israelites, which Merritt says is "the first major black cult in the United States."

In certain cases, she says, "depending on how involved somebody is and what specific recommendations the group makes for their training," some human-potential groups may also be "destructive. I've worked with some people from those groups who clearly had the same symptomotology as people from other destructive cults."

While in Boston, Merritt helped found "Return to Personal Choice," a group of mental-health professionals that accepted cult-related cases and tried to educate the public about the phenomenon. She also lectures throughout the country on the subject.

One reason for the relatively few mental-health professionals involved in cult rehabilitation, says Merritt, is that "Anyone who is outspoken about the phenomenon opens himself up to a lot of physical and emotional harassment by some of the cults."

Even though she says she has been under FBI protection, Merritt insists she is no martyr. "As a professional, I feel I have a responsibility to talk about what I've seen. Plus, it's phenomenal to see a mind re-grow in front of you."

It is difficult to judge how many people actually belong to these groups, says Merritt, but it has been estimated that three million young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are affiliated with them worldwide.

"I have not seen any decrease in the number of kids going in. I still get the same number of calls (10-20 a week) from parents seeking help."

During a series of talks given at public and private high schools in the area, Merritt found that "approximately 95 percent of the kids raised their hands when asked if they had been approached by a cult in their daily lives. Invariably after a talk, two or three would come up to me and say that they had been thinking of joining one of these cults."

Cult recruiters, says Merritt, are able to interest young people by offering them instant acceptance and friendship while making a point of keeping their identities a mystery.

Some cultists, for example, have been known to lure potential recruits by telling them they are involved in "community work" and then inviting them over to their communal-style home for dinner.

Because many middle-class young people are encouraged to explore new and innovative ideas, says Merritt, they are willing to give things a try without first demanding a detailed explanation of what is involved.

"This makes them perfect targets. With more critical thought and analysis they would be less likely to accept a recruiter's come-on."

So far as the government's possible deportation proceedings against Unification Church founder Moon -- on the basis of an investigation suggesting that he has violated federal immigration rules -- Merritt predicts it will result in a "rallying cry," and not a recruitment slowdown.