The most controversial feature of est (Erhard Seminars Training) is its regimen of day-long indoctrinations in which a cocky trainer bullies his audience into shedding their ego defenses in order to gain control over their lives. But according to a recent article by three psychiatrists in the American Journal of Psychiatry, est may, in fact, destroy defense mechanisms that are necessary and may - in some trainees, at least - induce psychoses. The article profiles five psychotic est trainees, four of whom had no previous history of psychiatric disorder. In one case, an executive who ''got it'' - the goal of est training - went home to the family pool and tried to breathe under water; his wife had him institutionalized. In another case, a woman suffered two manic attacks and became convinced that she was ''the power behind Werner Erhard,'' est's magnetic founder. A third est trainee later became so paranoid that he armed himself with bow and arrow and a handgun and was wounded in a street-corner fracas.
Although the authors emphasize that no causal relationship between est and the psychoses reported can yet be proved or even asserted, they clearly see their report as a warning to other psychiatrists that some connection may exist. In a second article, to be published later this year, they speculate on the basis of the same sparse evidence that the ''authoritarian, confrontational and ridiculing'' style used by est leaders may be harmful to trainees with weak identities. ''Seminar leaders employ a philosophy which doesn't seem to discriminate between ego defenses which are needed as coping mechanisms and those which are maladaptive hangups,'' says coauthor Leonard L. Glass, assistant psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
Brainwashing: In New York, where he spoke last week at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Erhard coolly acknowledged the psychiatrists' report, observed they had proved nothing and then produced an independent study in which sociologists Earl Babbie and Donald Stone found that the incidence of psychoses among est graduates is lower than that of the general population. Erhard also denied that his traineees are bullied by est leaders. ''That's not what happens,'' he said. ''We are not for or against defenses. We give est graduates a choice of which defenses they want to use.'' As est's chief interpreter, Erhard regards the report as yet another failed attempt to find fault with his patented system of self-help. ''They've tried to dress est in other costumes like brainwashing and Fascism,'' he says. ''Now it's psychosis-inducing. It's a legitimate process we have to go through, but none of the costumes fit.''