Mind game courses aimed at public sector workers


The Times/July 22, 1992
By Ray Clancy

Strathclyde Regional Council, Britain's biggest local authority, was approached informally by followers of Werner Erhard about training programmes for staff after at least three councillors had attended courses. A number of other councils have also been contacted.

The approach to Strathclyde comes at a time when there is concern about consultants offering management and staff training courses that are conducted by people who have no medical training in psychiatry.

Frank Pignatelli, director of education at Strathclyde, was invited by a councillor to an introductory session organised by Landmark Education, a London group connected with Erhard, held at the Lorne Hotel, Glasgow.

He was so appalled by the meeting, which included a lot of hugging, that he warned his staff that the group was working through councillors who had attended courses to seek further recruits. He described their opinions as ''alien to the Scottish culture''. The council has been conducting an investigation. ''I felt severely sceptical and cynical,'' Mr Pignatelli told his colleagues.

Attempts by Landmark Education and other groups offering similar courses to move into the public sector are taking place amid growing concern at the effects on some professionals who have been to corporate or individual seminars.

The Times has spoken to several people who have suffered ill effects and to their families and friends. Many are reluctant to discuss their experiences and those examples we quote have asked us to change their names.

Anne, 32, is suing her former employer for personal injury after she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of a four-day course organised by outside consultants. She has also issued writs against the consultants.

She had recently been appointed personnel manager in charge of a large department when she was sent with 11 colleagues to a management training seminar at a country house hotel in the Cotswolds. ''I was told I had to attend the course but was not given any specific details as to what it would entail. No information was made available about the structure or what we were going to study.''

From the outset she was unhappy about the woman running the course whom she describes as ''dominant and aggressive''. The woman told Anne that she did not believe in the concept of God and that she ''had no God''.

''I thought this was a pretty weird way of looking at things. When, during the course, she talked about the empowered person I realised that the course was not following traditional business lines.''

Phrases like ''freedom from shoulds, orientation to workability'' were used and graphs illustrated with mystical style circles and crystals. ''I underwent three days of subtle criticism which culminated in me being subjected to bullying in front of the whole group,'' Anne said.

She found herself the odd one out. Psychiatrists say that, because humans thrive on a ''sheep mentality'' where we like to follow others, it is difficult to resist when you are the odd one out.

''It was dangerous and damaging. I was being shouted at, told I was unfit to do my job. I was taken to one side and counselled by the woman running the course. She even got me to agree to leave my job. The next morning I vomited, I was in a terrible state. I now realised that I left that course in a state of partial breakdown and it has wiped out four years of my life.''

Anne told her senior manager about what happened on the course. He told her there was a second part four months later but she refused to attend. ''I had been subjected to four days of engineered stress and amateur psychology. I was not going to put my self through anymore.'' Later she was asked to resign. ''My boss said to me 'at least you won't have to go on the second course' but I felt free, I left and walked into the fresh air.''

Anne visited her GP who diagnosed severe depression. She took another job but left after ten days because she found herself unable to cope. ''Everyday when I arrived at work the course just came back at me.'' Her doctor recommended therapy and she was refered to a psychiatrist. ''I took up cross stitch embroidery with a vengeance just to occupy my mind without stressing it.''

Anne then went back to her former employers to ask for help in paying her therapy fees. They offered Pounds 500 but she refused the payment and is taking legal action instead. It will be a test case.

Charles, 26, who attended a self-improvement course, has found that his work as an accountant has been severely affected. Three days and one evening session of The Forum, run by Landmark Education, left him questioning everything in his life including his relationship with his wife and his work.

''When I had finished The Forum I felt as high as a kite. But when my wife asked me what I had learnt I could not be specific. I felt I had been born again. I had promised not to talk about the course except in the context of persuading others to sign up so it was difficult to have a normal conversation,'' he said.

Melanie, his wife, was horrified. ''My husband was not my husband anymore. He kept talking about the power of the being, living in the stands and getting in and getting out of it. It was really weird. When I tried to ask him what he meant by these words he could not explain. He also found it difficult to make decisions and he keeps changing his mind all the time. He seems to be questioning our relationship.''

Charles agrees he has difficulty making decisions. He has even considered going back and doing another course because ''it might help me. Everything is so difficult at the moment. I cannot make sense of my life.''

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