When self-help goes too far
When self-help goes too far
The day David Booth’s wife killed herself began with the subtlest of signs that something was amiss. December 20, 2005 was just like any other weekday morning. The couple set about preparing their lunches for work, but Booth says he knew something wasn’t quite right when his wife didn’t think to include any mangoes. “There was a big case of mangoes on the table – she loved them and would have two a day when they were in season – but she was off in a different place,” he tells MiNDFOOD.
Rebekah Lawrence, 34, had not been herself since completing a four-day Turning Point self-development course run by Sydney-based company People Knowhow two days before. Booth, a town planner, says he and Lawrence knew she may feel uneasy for a while after the course because the same thing had happened to a friend. As well as seeming vague and acting a little strangely, his wife had been unusually euphoric and affectionate since the course. On the drive into the city that morning, he asked her how long she thought it would be before she was back to normal. “I wanted her back, I wanted my Rebekah back,” he explains. But her response was unsettling: “Dave, I will never be the same again.”
He dropped her off at her office on Macquarie Street in Sydney’s CBD where she worked as personal assistant to the CEO of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, without any idea that his life – and hers – was about to change forever.
At work, Booth’s usually gentle wife’s behaviour became increasingly disturbing. At the inquest into her death at the NSW State Coroner’s Court last August, counsel assisting the coroner Robert Bromwich said Lawrence became “aggressive, somewhat abusive and somewhat foul mouthed, all of which were totally out of character”.
Booth later rang his wife to tell her he was running late to pick her up but by 5.30pm was parked downstairs waiting to take her home. Two storeys up, however, the usually modest Lawrence had stripped naked and entered her supervisor’s office. After saying she loved her in a child-like, sing-song voice, she then said she was all right and told her not to worry before skipping out of the room. In the bathroom afterwards, Lawrence asked her supervisor to help her get dressed but then started screaming loudly and turned aggressive, telling her to “get away!” before shoving her against the wall.
Booth didn’t carry a mobile phone so Lawrence’s co-workers began leaving messages for him at home. Assuming his wife had taken the train, Booth left to drive back to St Peters where the couple lived. Her colleagues called for an ambulance.
When paramedics arrived, court records show Lawrence had shed her clothes again and was swearing at anyone who came near her as she stood by the window in the CEO’s office. Before paramedics could administer a sedative, she reportedly ranted, “I love you David, I love you David” and then, “I know I am going to jump.” She was singing as she climbed onto the windowsill, stepped off the ledge and fell to the pavement below. She died half an hour later. An autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in her system.
The inquest called to determine whether the Turning Point course was responsible for bringing on the ‘lethal psychosis’ that led to Lawrence’s death found that, like many courses in the unregulated personal development industry, no one involved in the management, teaching or volunteer support staff of the course had any formal training or qualifications in counselling, psychology or related fields.
On December 8, 2009, Deputy State Coroner Malcolm MacPherson found that the Turning Point course did trigger Lawrence’s suicide and recommended the NSW Government make it a legal requirement for anyone offering counselling and psychotherapy in self-development courses to have recognised tertiary qualifications in medicine (psychiatry), psychology, psychotherapy, social work, nursing, welfare or counselling. A system of registration and accreditation of psychotherapy or counselling services was also recommended.
The Turning Point course, which promised participants a ‘journey to the core of the human spirit’ and cost participants $695 each, involved intensive psychotherapy regression, which consultant psychiatrist Michael Diamond claimed at the inquest was “intrinsically unsafe”. He also revealed there was nothing in Lawrence’s background that suggested she had a pre-existing mental condition.
“The petulant behaviour, sing-song voice, taking off of her clothes, coquettishness, child-like voice … these are clear descriptions of regressive behaviour,” Dr Diamond said. Although regression sessions could be used successfully in therapy, he said they must take place in a safe environment. He described the environment provided by the Turning Point program as “risky” and “reckless” and said the support offered after the course was “woefully inadequate”.
AN EMOTIONAL TIME
Booth, 42, says his wife went to see a psychotherapist a year before the Turning Point course. “She was of the opinion that Rebekah was quite seriously down about me not wanting to have a child,” Booth says. For two years before her death, Lawrence had started thinking about wanting to be a mother. Prior to that, Booth said she hadn’t wanted children. Booth already had a child from a previous marriage and felt strongly about not having more. “It was a big issue in our lives … people around her were all having them and she didn’t want to be left out,” he says, adding he now regrets being so definite about not wanting a child.
In the car on the morning of her death, Booth says his wife also shared that the course had taken her back to her childhood, revealing why she wanted a child and why she had confidence issues to do with friendships. “[Before the course] she would write lists of people with ticks and crosses next to them about friendships she had and friendships that had dissolved … she worried what her friends thought of her … whether she was smart enough,” Booth explains.
Geoffrey Kabealo, the chief executive of People Knowhow, told the inquest that 40,000 people have successfully graduated from the Turning Point and Breakthrough courses his company has run since 1988, without a problem. Turning Point lawyers argued Lawrence’s behaviour was brought on by an undiagnosed condition and the stress of a loudly ticking biological clock.
But during the inquest, it was revealed that two other suicides had also occurred within days of completing similar courses. Ki Hyung Kwon, a 32-year-old university student, was found naked with multiple stab wounds, thought to be self-inflicted, in his Wollongong flat three days after completing a Turning Point course in 2006. The shy Korean had openly proclaimed his bisexuality on the final day of the course, one reason why his shocked boyfriend said Kwon may have taken his own life.
Another tragedy occurred in 1987 during a Breakthrough course run by the creator of the Turning Point program. Darren Hughes, a troubled 24-year-old, leapt to his death from a 12m-high window three days into the course. When his devastated stepfather John Marshall read a recent newspaper article about Rebekah Lawrence’s suicide, he was shocked: “I thought, ‘My God, it’s happened again’,” he told 60 Minutes.
Booth admits that he still doesn’t really understand what happened in his wife’s case and why so many people can “do these courses and get things out of it and why others can turn psychotic”. And he questions how many people are wandering around in a psychotic state that nobody hears about. “It’s a big unknown in my mind – it’s all top secret what happens on these courses … they are very coy about it,” he says.
Bianca Brown, 33, has attended several self-help courses since she was 16, including Turning Point. The first, an Insight Seminars course, came at the right time for Brown whose parents were going through a difficult divorce. “The divorce had been going on since I was 13 and I was just totally neglected,” she says. “At the Insight course I felt loved and I could connect with other people – I felt really appreciated and I think it definitely helped my self-esteem.”
Brown grew up in a wealthy suburb on Sydney’s North Shore. “Everybody was always saving face – anything that was going wrong was hidden. That [Insight] environment allowed me to see what else was going on behind closed doors in other people’s lives. It normalised it for me and that’s a huge part of the healing process. Those groups really create that.”
Brown says she was initially annoyed when she heard about Lawrence’s death being linked to the Turning Point course. “People are so ready when something happens to point the finger,” she says. Brown says the self-help courses she attended created an environment for people to unload any burdens weighing them down. “You get really close to people you don’t know very, very quickly … you don’t have an option to be narrow minded – you’re hearing someone telling a room full of people they were sexually assaulted by their father when they have never told anyone before … It’s about breaking through the barriers and connecting with people and yourself and doing that in a safe environment – and usually it is a safe environment.”
She acknowledges that the Turning Point course, which she has done twice, was “very full on, very intense” and participants were advised not to make any major decisions for two weeks afterwards. “I think you’ve cleared out a fair bit of stuff; you are on a high, you feel a bit invincible,” she says.
Brown describes one ‘pillow-bashing’ exercise where participants are taken back to a painful time in their childhood as one she thought at the time “could really tip someone over the edge. That was quite scary because people would really let loose – you bash the pillow and let it all out,” she says. “You can kind of lose yourself in it. I couldn’t believe I was in that much pain.”
Dr Judy Hyde, a clinical psychologist and director of The Psychology Training Clinic at the University of Sydney, says although some courses in the self-help industry can temporarily improve someone’s sense of wellbeing, it’s important people seek out qualified professionals when they’re working through a personal issue or crisis that’s causing them to feel depressed or anxious.
“A lot of things can go wrong,” says Dr Hyde. “I’ve seen people who’ve become very unwell and unable to cope with life because they’ve been told things that aren’t true and have also been told in a way that isn’t helpful.” One patient was told she had multiple personalities. “It was very frightening for her but she was in a vulnerable state and believed it,” she says. The ‘expert’ trying to draw out these ‘multiple personalities’ was untrained.
There have also been cases of people being told they were sexually abused as children when that wasn’t the case. “That’s not to say people aren’t sexually abused but the belief came from their symptoms, not because of their memory of what happened,” Dr Hyde says. For professional psychologists and psychiatrists, there are guidelines in place to prevent such assumptions. “Non-professionals don’t have these guidelines and it can cause enormous problems,” Dr Hyde says. She is also aware of people suffering psychotic episodes after self-help courses. “When pushed very hard by someone into thinking a particular way … that can cause a fragile person to fall apart. It can really trigger that.”
Dr Hyde says people are increasingly turning to self-help courses because they feel isolated and alone. Life is so complicated and fast-moving that people don’t have the time to put into relationships, but she says it is those connections to people that help us feel safe and get us through tough times. For those who didn’t have strong connections from nurturing parents during childhood, connecting with others can be difficult as adults. “It’s hard to offer that support to others when you haven’t had it yourself, but it’s also hard to go and find it if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Dr Hyde says. “It’s that aloneness that leads people to seek help from self-help groups.”
This also partly explains the often-asked question of why people become involved in bizarre cults. “It becomes quite powerful, that feeling of belonging and connection and importance, that these people are focused on them in some way is very powerful.”
And for the many people who come away from self-help courses raving about their positive impact it comes down to a similar feeling. “A lot of the impact comes from the relating that goes on during a self-help course – it’s this intense experience of connectedness – but the issues are still there and haven’t been addressed and it goes away after a few days,” adds Dr Hyde.
Those delivering the programs can also obtain a ‘high’ from the intimacy and sense of connectedness gained by participants and this convinces them they are doing good work, Dr Hyde says. “They feel privileged, as indeed they are, when people make painful self-disclosures, but they don’t know how to process the intense experiences these generate and the much-needed support is lost with the ending of the group.”
Although some self-help courses clearly overpromise and underdeliver, Dr Hyde says the people delivering the courses genuinely want to help, “But behind that, where there is a business, it is all about the money.”
Meanwhile, David Booth still lives in the home he shared with his wife. He had a three-year relationship after Lawrence’s death “to fill the void” but says he doesn’t know if anyone will truly be able to replace his soulmate. “I’ve been through a lot – it’s pretty life destroying in a way but it depends on how you look at death … I know I’ll see her again.”
HOOKED ON HELP
The rapidly growing self-help industry, not only in New Zealand and Australia, but throughout the Western world, shows no signs of slowing down as we spend more and more on books, seminars, workshops and coaching.
According to Marketdata Enterprises, in 2008 Americans spent US$11 billion (NZ$16 billion) on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programs – 14 per cent more than in 2005. Book sales were boosted by the $300 million spent on The Secret DVD and book. Steve Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Gurus of the Self-help Movement Make Us Helpless (Allen & Unwin, $27) says the most likely customer for a self-help book is one who bought a similar book in the previous 18 months.
It begs the question whether reading countless books and sitting in numerous workshops equates to personal growth or just more personal debt. Salerno says the self-help industry has weaned a generation of young people on the belief that simply aspiring to something is the same thing as achieving it. “They tend to approach life as if it were a succession of new year’s resolutions: it’s always what they’re going to do.”
Bianca Brown has attended several self-help seminars over the past 18 years, and has seen her fair share of ‘workshop junkies’. Some companies reward graduates with a pin after each course. At the last seminar Brown attended she says many attendees were “covered” in pins. “I remember thinking ‘this is too full on, you’ve taken it way too far – just do the course and get on with it – why do you have to keep coming back?’” she says.