Rebekah's death plunge not suicide: doctor

The Sydney Morning Herald/August 19, 2009

The death of a 34-year-old woman who threw herself off an inner-city office building in 2005 could not be described as a suicide, an inquest into her death has heard.

Appearing at the inquest at the Coroner's Court in Glebe today, forensic psychiatrist Michael Diamond said that Rebekah Lawrence's mental state was such that "she did not have the capacity to form sufficient intent to carry out a suicidal plan".

Ms Lawrence, 34, died on December 20, 2005, after falling naked from a Macquarie Street building, two days after completing the four-day Turning Point course, run by the company People Knowhow.

Dr Diamond described Ms Lawrence as a "measured and conservative woman" whose participation in the "intrinsically unsafe" course had triggered a psychotic state, first evidenced several days into the course when she began giving her pet dog "telepathic commands".

Dr Diamond, who has been a practising psychiatrist since 1984, and produced a report on Ms Lawrence's death for the inquest, described the Sydney woman as having experienced a "brief reactive psychosis".

He said this experience was similar to that experienced by soldiers in combat who undergo conditions of high stress, sleep deprivation, arousal and terror.

People who observed Ms Lawrence just prior to her death gave a very clear description of a person displaying regressed, child-like behaviour, he said.

"The petulant behaviour, the sing-song voice, the taking off her clothes, the coquettishness, the child-like voice ... these are clear descriptions of regressive behaviour," Dr Diamond said.

"It was something that was actually participated in during the course, so it's difficult not to see a causal link."

Regression sessions were a normal and good part of therapy, but they must happen in a safe, trusting environment, he said.

"It's now common knowledge that attempts to do this in short, sharp, controlled [sessions, or those] targeting regression as the desired effect in an environment where there are none of the real supports or capacities to deal with it is a dangerous thing," he said.

"And that's why using these powerful techniques in quite a risky way or even a reckless way is really not encouraged."

He also criticised the Turning Point course for not employing support staff with sufficient training or expertise to deal with the intense emotional fallout that could be produced by the course.

"It's not a group of people learning lifestyle skills or a benign personal development course but an extremely powerful emotional experience that can be dangerous when held by people who don't have the skills to conduct it," Dr Diamond said.

He noted that employing trained psychiatrists to improve the screening process would be unsatisfactory.

"It would be difficult finding people with appropriate experience who would place themselves in that position," he said.

"It's like being the doctor at a heavyweight boxing match: do you want to deal with people with brain injury or not support that activity that may involve brain injury in the first place?"

The inquiry is hearing final submissions today.

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