I’ve often wondered what would happen if a person with undiagnosed bipolar disorder participates in a self-development program and receives counsel from a program leader who may have little or no education on mood disorders. The result could be devastating, I would think.

In real life, let’s take Rebekah Lawrence from Sydney who burst into song while standing naked in her downtown office building, her final words being “I know I am going to jump.” And then leaped out the window.

An Associated Press story published a few months ago tells the details. A few days before her jump Lawrence participated in an intense self-help seminar called The Turning Point, a self-development company that I believe is comparable to similar programs in the U.S.

Says the article:

The course had pledged to change her life. Instead, some say, it led to her death.

For nearly 40 years, the mental health community has kept a wary eye on the explosion of self-help groups around the world. But despite concerns they can push the fragile too hard, too fast, these groups operate unmonitored and unregulated, most run by people with no formal mental health training.

In the four years since Lawrence’s fatal plunge, investigators for an inquest into her death have focused on a key issue: Was a course to blame for her psychosis and death? Or did the 34-year-old woman’s descent into madness begin earlier, triggered by an ungranted wish to have a child?

My overriding concern with these types of self-development groups is that the leaders often have no training whatsoever in mental health matters — or such training may vary widely from leader to leader. Because self-development or self-mastery programs consider their courses as educational versus therapeutic, they are not held to the same regulations as mental health professionals, such as psychologists or psychiatrists.

Here’s one example… A friend of mine participated in one of these self-development programs and had some real breakthroughs. One was acknowledging that she was smoking too much marijuana, and that she was using it to numb herself of the pain of being alive. Great for her, I thought.

But then she said, “Just like the antidepressants take the edge off for you.”

I explained to her that my antidepressants aren’t comparable to a joint or a bong hit — they aren’t mood altering in that way.

She didn’t buy my explanation. No biggie. I don’t have to report to her every time I take my Zoloft. However, in that moment, I thought to myself, “My God, if she becomes a leader in this thing, she will be dispensing advice like that: get off the happy pills like I got off pot.” Furthermore, when a person is severely depressed, the last thing you want to do is to indict them for their suffering.

“You’re miserable because you want to be miserable,” like I’ve heard certain leadership programs preach.

Am I maybe overreacting?

A second friend of mine who took a self-development course said she was finally able to come to grips with her father, and accept him as a fundamentally weak person. “I mean,” she explained to me, “he is on medication for his depression and all that.”

Once more I tried to defend those of us impaired by bad brain chemistry, bad genetics, or bad something else. But I don’t really don’t care if she puts me and her dad in the pathetic camp. However, I do care if she becomes a self-development leader and starts promoting those opinions to folks in the room not strong enough to know the difference between their psychiatrist/therapist and people in the self-help movement. And, God forbid, dump the shrink because a self-development program has taught them a way to do it without weekly counseling and some help in the form of medication.

Hey, if self-help programs foster integrity, leadership, and happiness, then let’s all enroll. But if they make people jump out of windows in Sydney, well … I have a real problem with that.

 

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to reflect that a previous version of the article associated a U.S.-based company with the tragic events that occurred in Australia. The two companies have no connection nor association; we apologize for the error.