From the persistent airport flower (sales) children to the grotesque Jonestown tragedy . . . from the paddling death of a toddler in a country commune, to the bizarre-looking dress of bald Sikhs on city streets . . . from mass-marrying Moonies to blank faces and hooded eyes on the street . . .

The very word "cult," which evokes these images, has become synonymous with eerie, whether brutal or benign.

There also are the perceptions of personal tragedy, of young people brainwashed, their minds "controlled" . . . of parents kidnaping even adult children from temples or communes, of deprogramming . . . of shattered families and conflict and heartbreak. And most pervasive of all is the image of crazed young people, somehow unhinged: "weirdos" or "schizzies."

Although negative connotations of some cults are obviously warranted, some new studies are suggesting that fairly large numbers of young people--in some of the so-called cults or sects--may be happier and better adjusted than they had been in the "real world."

Latest of these studies, appearing in the April issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry, reports on 42 members of the Hare Krishna Temple in Melbourne, Australia. The investigator, Michael W. Ross, PhD, of the department of Psychiatry of Flinders University Medical School in Bedford Park, Australia, found that in standard mental-health tests the "scores and findings were within the normal range."

His findings, he writes, "do not support the popular view that many members of the Hare Krishna movement are mentally disordered."

He also found that the longer the members of the group had been in the temple, the better adjusted they became. (He makes the point that Hare Krishna is a well-established traditional Hindu faith that dates to the 2nd century, B.C. and is still practiced by millions of Indians.)

"I cannot emphasize too strongly," he writes, "that it is inappropriate to label all apparently new and nonconforming movements as cults . . ."

"In short," he concludes from his study, "the popular view of Hare Krishna devotees as brainwashed and maladjusted individuals who have been snatched from their families was shown to be fallacious."

If a group of 41 Hare Krishnas on the other side of the world seems somewhat removed from home, consider a New York psychiatrist who has studied cults, sects and their members in this country and has reached some similar conclusions.

Dr. Marc Galanter, a psychiatrist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, has found that "groups may offer psychological support and meaning to life to those who join and in that respect the members may feel more secure than a lot of their friends who lead what is perceived as purposeless lives.

"People today tend not to have a lot of direction in their lives, and that generates a measure of anxiety which has been described as characteristic of our century." Success of the groups, Galanter believes, is in their ability to provide a belief system and stability "that harkens back to a period when people had more certainty about the reasons that the world turned."

Both Galanter and Ross have found that it is not uncommon for members of charismatic groups to have had pre-group psychological problems. Among the Australians, Ross writes, 27 had experiences with "addictive and hallucinogenic drugs" and only 10 had no previous drug experience.

In a December article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Galanter says he found 38 percent of members of the Divine Light Mission (adherents of the Maharaj Ji) had sought professional help before they joined the group and 9 percent had been hospitalized. Of a group of members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, 30 percent had previously sought help and 6 percent had been hospitalized.

Galanter refers to other reports indicating that alcohol and drug abuse declines markedly among individuals after joining sects. Galanter and his associates found two sects in which "both mild and heavy use of drugs declined."

Ross found the same thing among the Melbourne Hare Krishnas. "Since the movement eschews all drugs (including such mild stimulants as tea and coffee)," he writes, "this history of abstinence after joining the movement must rate as one of the more successful rehabilitation programs."

Writes Galanter, "the apparent potential of charismatic groups for enforcing new behavioral norms is . . . well illustrated."

Galanter, considered one of this country's top authorities in the field, also specializes in treating substance abusers. He suggests that there is a similarity between the success of such programs as AA and the decline of substance abuse within many cult groups.

"A lot of the effective approaches to alcohol and drug abuse," he points out, "are based on large groups with shared experiences."

Both scientists concede vast differences between the growing number of cults, sects and gurus.

"Some," says Galanter, "seem to attract members with considerable psychopathology," and others might "contribute to a later exacerbation of their illness."

The structure of the group and the stability of its leadership has a great influence on the emotional health of its members, says Galanter, "but you cannot make a judgment that groups are ipso facto good or bad. One has to judge these, like any other social groups, by what they do, and every citizen is entitled to make that judgment."

He recognizes that they also may be judged in terms of one's own belief systems. This can result in the kind of parent-child conflict over membership that in turn leads to such radical procedures as kidnaping and deprogramming.

"It is not," he notes, "that the parent or the group is right or wrong," but the potential for conflict exists.

Galanter, who also has studied former members of sects and cults, will present his findings at the May meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Basically, he says, those who leave fall into two major groups: those "who suffer some emotional disruption but who then stabilize and re-adapt to the outside community" and "a minority who were forcibly removed who tend to be much more negative and eventually more vocal and aggressive" in trying to persuade former comrades also to leave.

Both Galanter and Ross see, as Galanter puts it, "unusual behavior and attitudes as obligatory characteristics of a cohesive group--things that define it and set it apart. It may look strange to us, but it tends to stabilize the group's cohesiveness, and establish its boundaries."

He also suggests that findings in which converts appeared, as one researcher writes, "drab and dreamy outside the group, and somewhat expressionless . . ." may be no more than other manifestations of boundary-setting: a deliberately blank public face.

Writes Ross, "Researchers who base conclusions on their perceptions of movements, rather than on clinical and psychometric evaluation of members of each organization are in danger of exonerating the bad or condemning the normal . . . it may be that mental-health professionals are paying too much attention to conformity in a social and religious sense without recognizing that most established religions began in a manner similar to today's fringe religions . . ."