As we have begun to approach legislators with our concerns about consumer safety and ideas for improvement in the self-help industry, we have presented them this 2-page overview of the issue.
SEEK Safely, Inc.
To inform the legislature of the threats to consumer safety and public health posed by the unregulated self-help industry and advocate for action to ensure consumer protection.
The self-help industry is at least an $11 billion per year industry in America alone that includes everything from books and blogs to seminars to multi-day, physical events for individuals hoping to improve their personal and/or professional lives. Many self-help “gurus” have little to no training and conduct unsafe events, putting their customers at considerable financial, emotional, and physical risk.
There have been numerous incidents at the events of prominent self-help gurus, including the deaths of 3 participants at James Ray’s 2009 Spiritual Warrior retreat. There is a role for government to play in ensuring consumer safety and protecting public health.
In 2009, James Ray was at the height of his self-help success, having gained fame with “The Secret” book and movie phenomenon. He had been featured by many media outlets, and was heavily promoted by Oprah.
During the 5-day, $9,500 retreat, participants were challenged physically and emotionally to the point where they were exhausted and weakened leading up to the culminating event, a Native American-style sweat lodge. Mr. Ray, not trained or qualified to conduct a sweat lodge, made the traditionally spiritual, cleansing ritual into a test of physical endurance, heating the tent to deadly temperatures. He challenged and bullied participants to stay in the lodge and belittled or ignored those who called for help. As a result, three participants died. Ray was charged with manslaughter by the state of Arizona and served 18 months in prison for three counts of negligent homicide.
One of these victim’s (Kirby Brown) family founded SEEK Safely, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to educate the public about the self-help industry, empower seekers with tools and knowledge to be safe, and to promote ethical and safe practices in this unregulated industry. SEEK has primarily been focused on educating consumers through its website and social media outreach. We have also been challenging the self-help industry to practice in a more ethical manner with industry summits and a call to sign the SEEK Safely Promise, a document that outlines a set of standards and practices for self-help professionals.
The tragedy at James Ray’s event exposed many of the dangers within the self-help industry. At the most benign end, consumers are losing money. At the most extreme end, consumers are losing their lives or suffering severe physical and emotional damage. Gurus are seldom trained in the techniques they use at their events. There is often a lack of medical staff on hand to attend to potential injuries. Some gurus also use cult-like, torture-like tactics such as sleep deprivation, limiting food intake, and emotional intimidation to make participants more suggestible.
These types of abuses are common across the industry, which has no set of ethical standards or best practices, nor a system of credentialing. Given the fractured nature of the industry, there is little organic effort from within to self-regulate. Anyone can brand himself a “guru.” Social media and smartphone technology have made it even easier for gurus to reach consumers.
As SEEK has learned more about this industry, we have also learned that participants who have been harmed are frequently reluctant to come forward with their experiences out of embarrassment and shame, sometimes convinced by the company or guru that the incident was their own fault. Some have even been paid off by the self-help gurus.
If James Ray was a product that could be purchased in a store, he would have been recalled for causing the death and injury of people who followed his directions and lost their lives. However, there is no such system of oversight applied to the self-help industry. Given the reality and growing potential for harm to consumers, the government must step in to protect its citizens.
The SEEK Board of Directors is now looking for legislative help at both the state and federal levels to bring this issue to light and put pressure on the industry by creating ethical and safety standards of practice to which these practitioners would be held accountable.
SEEK Safely’s Promise (attached) outlines a set of standards for gurus to practice in an ethical and safe manner. SEEK Safely’s RED FLAG Guides (attached) presents a number of points for consumers to consider in order to stay safe when using self-help products or attending events. Both of these documents point to potential areas where government legislation could play a role in protecting consumers.
Click to Download: Legislative Briefing Note 2016