Critics say be wary of self-help groups

Salt Lake Tribune/April 30, 1994
By Samuel A. Autman

It's 8:30 a.m. Nearly 150 people sit eagerly in a hotel convention room set up theater style. The executives, homemakers, postal employees, college students are bonded by their hunger for a fuller life.

A suave man in his 40s steps up to the podium. He sits in a chair and clutches a glass of water. All eyes are on him as he swallows.

The speaker knows each person has paid a few hundred dollars for this four-day session. Some audience members are skeptical, but his words could help them improve their lives. And if he intrigues the listeners -- they will be back with friends, family and more money.

In the past 10 years, scenes like these have been cropping up in Utah. The self-help gospels draw from Zen Buddhism, Dale Carnegie's positive thinking, L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology and Jose Silva's Mind Control.

Groups such as Landmark Education, Lifespring and Impact International promise to help people release "untapped potential,'' "breakthroughs'' and aid in "personal growth.'' These three groups have been the most active in Utah.

Critics say such programs can be manipulative, maybe even dangerous by using untrained people to facilitate group therapy.

Officials from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance, warn members to avoid groups that have late-night meetings or encourage public, personal confessions.

"Many of these groups advocate concepts and use methods that can be harmful,'' according to a written church statement.

"Some falsely claim church endorsement, actively recruit church members, charge exorbitant fees and encourage long-term commitments.

Some intermingle worldly concepts with gospel principles in ways that can undermine spirituality and faith.''

Program defenders say group leaders are trained to facilitate sessions, but do not purport to administer therapy. They argue that through confessions, guided imagery, role playing, impromptu confrontations that may lead to tears, thousands are becoming self-empowered.

Landmark Education Inc., is headquartered in San Francisco with 40 offices worldwide. In 1992, it had $29 million in revenues, up from $26 million in 1991.

Landmark spokeswoman Sharon Spaulding, declined to comment on the Mormon Church's statement. More than 30,000 people have gone through Impact International Inc., a Salt Lake City-based group founded in 1985. Hans Berger, a Mormon who attended Lifespring, created the program. Critics have alleged that Impact was designed to attract Mormons.

Corporate administrator Dwight Hansen denies that, pointing to the Baptists, Catholics, Jews, East Indians and atheists who have gone through the program. Impact understands and supports the LDS Church's admonition to use caution, he said.

"Impact's vision is to empower the human spirit towards free, unconditional loving and harmonious living. It does not take a rocket scientist to see this world is not a harmonious place right now,'' Hansen said.

Officials from California-based Lifespring declined to comment.

To prove its program complements Mormonism, Impact officials point to Berniece Kroll, a practicing Mormon who refers her counseling patients to the sessions.

The Impact graduate lives in Pasco, Wash., and has studied Landmark and Lifespring philosophies. She claimed to learn more about herself from the self-help program than from her master's studies six years previous.

"The founders of Impact Training, Hans and Sally Berger, do not claim to be prophets or place themselves in the position of spiritual leaders of any kind,'' Kroll wrote to an LDS welfare department official.

"They are just concerned people who have the intellect and the sensitivity to come up with an eclectic group therapy that addresses human emotional needs in a holistic manner.''

Impact embraces the same values as the Mormon Church because, "it emphasizes the need for each of us to be whole and to connect with our fellow human beings and with our Father in Heaven,'' Kroll wrote.

Kaleohano Serrao, a lapsed Mormon who had gone on an LDS mission, swears Impact's first course transformed his life. Relationships improved. He became a manager at a florist shop. He resolved personal anger.

It was worth the $425.

"It helped me in the sense of waking up, seeing what I need to do in goal-setting,'' said Serrao. "I make things happen. I created this job for myself.''

But his perspective changed when Impact leaders encouraged him to "enroll people in your life, meaning in Impact.'' He refused, and has not taken any more courses.

Dr. Richard Ferre, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Utah and a Mormon, has seen many people go through these programs. Mostly they have had positive experiences. Some have a fanatical fervor to proselytize their families and friends.

But Ferre's main concern is manipulation.

"It probably is not dangerous to the extent that something bad happens. The underlying danger is that someone thinks that they are making real changes, but they are being manipulated by the group process,'' he said.

Lifelong patterns are not changed after a four-day course, Ferre argued.

Some finish courses and impulsively get divorced or leave their spouses.

Impact spokesman Hansen said no one in the program is coerced. "It is not about getting people in here and making them cry, but some people do cry.''

The objective is to free individuals from past baggage.

"This is not about the Mormon Church. It is not designed around any church. It's about people taking a look at their lives,'' Hansen said.

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