A Wellington man says he sank into a deep depression and changed his behaviour so radically that he lost his job after completing a Landmark Education course. Aaron Cohen says he felt good about completing the first course run by Landmark - which encourages people to get out of their comfort zone, take risks and achieve goals. But the second course left him feeling ''the most depressed I have ever felt in my life.''
Mr Cohen was one of more than a dozen people to ring Contact after last week's story on Government agencies funding staff to take Landmark's personal development courses. A Landmark media spokesperson Sharon Spaulding said from Utah that people could not blame Landmark for things that go wrong in their lives. People exercise a choice in how they use the skills learned through Landmark courses. While the American-based international organisation has a low profile in New Zealand it has been dogged by controversy overseas because of its intense teaching methods and strong recruitment drive.
Several government agencies including the prison service, health providers and at least one local tertiary institution have funded staff to take courses. The entry-level course called the Landmark Forum involves three consecutive 15 hour days of training during which many participants reach an emotional state called ''transformation.''
Mr Cohen says he became so disillusioned with Landmark Education that he failed to turn up to the third course for which he had paid a deposit. He says the course put participants into a vulnerable state by allowing them little time to eat, drink or even go for toilet breaks. ''We were made to feel very uncomfortable if we even left the room to go to the bathroom. A lot of people got more and more emotionally shot as the course went on.''
Mr Cohen says Landmark's assertiveness training influenced him to tell his employers at the time that he was ''unhappy with what was going on'' and to try to do things which were beyond his ability. He says he was fired as a result of his radical new behaviour. ''The course made [me into] a 19-year-old bad decision maker,'' he says. Ms Spaulding said in response to repeated criticism that participants felt pressured not to leave the room that people were able to go to the toilet. ''But we do tell people if they leave at times other than during breaks we can't promise they'll get the full value of the course.''
Ms Spaulding strongly rejected claims that Landmark participants were required to enrol others in courses. Sometimes participants were over- enthusiastic - but only in the same way that anyone who had seen a good film might insist a friend go and see it. Another caller, Alvin Ralph, says Landmark Education put his partner under so much pressure she came close to a breakdown. He says that pressure also caused the breakup of their relationship.
Mr Ralph participated in a number of courses and his partner became a trainer. He thought the Forum was so good he paid for his three sons to go on it. But as he carried on with the courses he disliked the pressure being put on people and the mix of ''praise and put down.'' He said his partner was taking time off work just to memorise ''pages and pages.'' ''I had to ring them in the finish [and say] 'if you don't pull her out of this course she's going to have a breakdown.' ''
Mr Ralph said the courses were ''quite good'' and there was some mending of family relationships. ''Most people who do the courses believe it to be good value.'' But he said getting involved in training others was ''a different story''. Yvonne Collin went on a course two years ago and says she came away with ''real concerns about the pressure and emotional manipulation. ''If my taxes are going to pay to put people through it then I'm concerned.''
What you learn in the end is that the only meaning in life is the meaning that you give to it, she said. She says her concern was not so much the message Landmark offered, but the pressure put on people. ''It's the business side of it that disturbs me.'' Ms Collins said she was still getting calls six months after doing the course.
Another caller, Jeff, said he'd been urged during the Forum to phone his father and fix their relationship. At one point he said around five people stood next to him urging him to call his father again after his father had not wanted to talk. ''In the end my father said 'I think you are being brainwashed Jeff and should get the hell out of there'.'' At the end of the course there had been a ''real frenzy'' to sign people up for the next course, he said. Ms Spaulding responded to questions about information supplied to intending course participants.
She said there was no formal prospectus outlining exactly what would happen during the course or details about the qualifications and backgrounds of the trainers. But a great deal of literature was made available including a study from Harvard University, she said. ''We get almost no requests for refunds. We have a 95 per cent customer satisfaction rate.'' Anyone who had a problem with what Landmark offered could work through a complaints procedure which involved speaking to the person responsible for that particular area of training.