What would you do if a work colleague strips, screams, acts “like a child having a tantrum”, starts to sing and then jumps out of a window to her death? That is the situation that was faced by staff at the Sydney office of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in December 2005.
Only days earlier, 34-year-old Rebekah Lawrence, had participated in a self-development course called “The Turning Point” conducted by Zoeros P/L trading as People KnowHow. The course, according to one media report, the course included a session called “The Inner Child”
“in which those taking part were encouraged to develop a dialogue between their child and adult selves.”
Lawrence’s actions just before her death mirrored some of the course teaching.
PeopleKnowHow’s website has closed down with an announcement that all of its courses are under review. Other organisations that provide similar courses are running for cover. Transformational Learning Australia has said it
“…no longer has a professional relationship, affiliation or any other connection with People Knowhow.” [emphasis added]
TLA also says any relationship ended in 2005. That the company has felt it necessary to make a media statement about the end of the relationship shows the extent of the effect of Rebekah Lawrence’s death on this industry sector.
TLA goes on to say that
Our organisation does not accept participants who have a recent history of chronic mental illness, participants under the care of a treating professional who have not obtained that professional’s consent to participate, or people who demonstrate a propensity towards psychological fragility or a significant lack of cohesion during the introductory sessions of the program.”
The New South Wales Coroner found that in the absence of any history of psychosis in Rebekah Lawrence that,
The evidence is overwhelming that the act of stepping out of a window to her death was the tragic culmination of a developing psychosis that had its origins in a self-development course known as ‘The Turning Point’ conducted by Zoeros Pty. Ltd, trading under the name of ‘People Know-How” on the 14, 16, 17 and 18 December 2005.
The full coronial findings are difficult to read due to the personal details of Lawrence’s life, her relationship with her husband David and the general picture of her personality that comes through. An upsetting and enlightening interview with David Booth is available online from earlier in the investigation process.
The findings also provide considerable detail to the components of the course that Lawrence undertook. There is a greater level of detail than would be expected to be known by someone signing up for such a course and this is where the lessons can be learnt for the OHS professional and safety manager.
It has become common in many corporations who are trying to improve or introduce a positive workplace culture, to supplement their own efforts with “self-help” or “self-awareness” courses. Lawrence’s death has highlighted the lack of regulation or accountability in some sectors of this industry. This also highlights the need for people managers to thoroughly investigate such courses to ensure that good intentions are not likely to increase the risk of harm or damage to the employees who participate.
An audio report on the Coroner’s findings is available online.
Many workplaces often provide access to counselling services through schemes such as Employment Assistance Programs. The Coroner’s recommendations have some direct bearing on the issue of “counsellors”.
“The Executive Director of the Australian Psychological Society, Professor Lynne Littlefield pointed out that there are no legal restrictions in Australia for practising under the title ‘psychotherapist’ or under the title ‘counsellor’ and therefore no public safeguards against untrained or incompetent practitioners in this field.
Professor Littlefield pointed out that although there were many skilled counsellors and psychotherapists, there were also many whose competence is questionable and without any regulating mechanisms to stipulate the required training and levels of competence, there was no way of protecting the public from these poorly trained practitioners.”
Rebekah Lawrence’s death is receiving considerable media coverage in Australia at the moment and the New South Wales Government is carefully considering the Coroner’s recommendations concerning the regulation of some areas of the self-development industry. Employers and safety professionals are going to have a very different set of criteria shortly from which such workplace-related courses need to be evaluated.
One media report has indicated the start of the ramifications of this unfortunate death:
“The NSW Health Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, said she had asked her department for ”urgent advice” on the case and would consider the coroner’s recommendations. A code of conduct for counsellors and psychologists had already been implemented and the Health Care Complaints Commission now monitored practitioners.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists called for closer monitoring and accountability of self-help and psychotherapeutic courses.”