Scientology's war on psychiatry

The controversial church, whose founder called shrinks "terrorists" and which labels mental illness a fraud, is closer than you think to implanting its extreme beliefs in the nation's laws and schools.

Published July 1, 2005 10:37PM (EDT)

It may be easy to dismiss Tom Cruise's recent outbursts against psychiatry as the ravings of an egomaniacal celebrity. Comedians have certainly had a field day with Cruise, a fervent disciple of the Church of Scientology, ever since he scolded Brooke Shields for taking prescribed medication to treat her postpartum depression and lectured Matt Lauer, host of the "Today" show, that psychiatry was a "pseudoscience" and antidepressant drugs were worthless because there is "no such thing as a chemical imbalance." "No?" wisecracked Lewis Black on "The Daily Show," watching a video clip of Cruise berating Lauer, "Then what do you call what's happening to you right now?"

But the Church of Scientology's war on psychiatry is no joke. For decades, Scientologists have maintained that the very notion of mental illness is a fraud. They base this belief on the views of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who proclaimed that psychiatry was an evil enterprise, a form of terrorism, and the cause of crime. Now, they're attempting to enshrine their contempt for psychiatry in laws across the country.

Recently, Scientologists have promoted legislation in Florida, Utah and New Hampshire that seeks to discredit psychiatry and drug therapies, especially for kids. The laws would penalize, even criminalize, schoolteachers who recommended mental health treatments to students or parents. At the same time, Scientologists have infiltrated the public schools, promoting a drug abuse program that presents information -- that drugs like marijuana and LSD, for instance, accumulate in body fat and create constant cravings -- roundly dismissed by medical experts.

In fact, physicians, psychiatrists and scientists have consistently said that Scientology's approaches to mental health have no basis in medical fact and can be dangerous to people who may need treatment. On June 27, following Cruise's "Today" show appearance, the American Psychiatric Association issued a statement to remind the nation's TV viewers that "science has proven that mental illnesses are real medical conditions" and that medications have been a lifesaving part of treatment plans for millions of people. "It is irresponsible for Mr. Cruise to use his movie publicity tour to promote his own ideological views and deter people with mental illness from getting the care they need," said Steven S. Sharfstein, president of the association. Scientology critics and former members of the church add that what lies behind the attacks on psychiatry and medicine is the church's drive to spread its religious teachings.

The Church of Scientology's world war on psychiatry arose from its zealous founder. For reasons known only to Hubbard himself, the science fiction author and budding church leader conceived a violent hatred of psychiatry. Perhaps his animus took root when the American Psychological Association, following the 1950 publication of Hubbard's self-help treatise, "Dianetics," advised its members against using Hubbard's psychological techniques with their patients.

In a 1969 article, "Today's Terrorism," published in a Scientology journal, Hubbard claimed that "the psychiatrist and his front groups operate straight out of the terrorist textbooks. The Mafia looks like a convention of Sunday school teachers compared to these terrorist groups." The psychiatrist, Hubbard went on, "kidnaps, tortures and murders without any slightest police interference or action by western security forces." Later, Hubbard wrote that, in society, "there's only one remedy for crime -- get rid of the psychs! They are causing it!"

Today, the Church of Scientology holds tax-exempt status in the United States, preventing it from doing any major political lobbying. Yet Scientologists remain active in politics and the public arena through front groups of their own. In the same year that Hubbard's "Today's Terrorism" article was published, Scientologists founded the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an organization designed to "investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights," according to its Web site, which claims: "No mental 'diseases' have ever been proven to medically exist." An exhibit on permanent display in the organization's Los Angeles headquarters, "Psychiatry Kills," links psychiatry to Nazism, apartheid and school violence. The shooting spree at Columbine High School is blamed in part on "anger management" classes that shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris allegedly attended.

While emphasizing that the CCHR is a "secular commission," David Figueroa, president of the group's Florida chapter and a practicing Scientologist, states that mental illness, as defined by the psychiatric community, does not exist. For instance, he says, bucking the world's medical textbooks, "there is zero amount of proof that schizophrenia exists as a singular mental illness."

He takes particular offense at the mention of attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. "Our contention from the very beginning is that these mental disorders are a scam," he says. "We know that there has never been any biological proof to any of these so-called mental illnesses these kids have been tagged with, whether it's ADD or ADHD. They don't exist. It's 100 percent fraud."

Many of the symptoms that kids exhibit in the classroom, Figueroa argues, may just be signs of academic, emotional or nutritional problems - difficulty understanding a lesson, parents who are getting divorced, an allergic reaction to a food such as peanuts or strawberries. In those cases, he suggests, a child needs only tutoring or vitamins. But he's convinced that psychiatrists don't recognize those possibilities; they just drug the child into submission, like a kiddy version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." "Their only tool is to label and to drug," Figueroa says. "That's all they know how to do."

Advocates of the psychiatric care of kids say that's preposterous. "Appropriate treatment is not always medication," says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the National Child and Adolescent Action Center for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Referring to Scientology organizations like CCHR, she says, "These groups make a leap of faith that we're going to identify kids and put them on drugs. That is their attempt to sensationalize this issue to recruit other individuals and groups."

Medical experts also dismiss the claim that ADHD is a fraudulent condition. "It is a bona fide condition recognized and diagnosed around the world," writes Dr. Peter S. Jensen, director of the Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health at Columbia University, in NAMI Beginnings magazine in 2003. Jensen cites biological evidence for the condition and points out that hundreds of studies have shown that medical treatment of ADHD is effective. His article was in part a response to hearings on Capitol Hill about ADHD, which, he notes, had been organized with "substantial Scientology input." "Children and families suffering with the burdens of ADHD must no longer be held hostage to myth and misinformation," he writes.

The argument that children are overmedicated, critics say, constitutes a fig leaf concealing the Scientologists' more radical agenda: destroying psychiatry. "Scientologists have gotten behind an attitude that's out there in general society that too many kids are on medication," says Jim Daughton, a lobbyist for the Florida Psychiatric Society. "Legislators and policymakers have that general concern. Nobody wants to have these kids hopped up on medication if they don't need to be. So Scientologists are able to get on that bandwagon and take it a step further, saying there's no test for mental illness, that mental illness doesn't exist."

This spring in Florida, where the Clearwater area is a Church of Scientology stronghold, CCHR mounted an aggressive political campaign to keep kids from getting psychiatric care. In the state Legislature, two CCHR-sponsored bills were backed by two Republicans, Rep. Gustavo Barreiro, of Miami Beach, and Sen. Victor Crist, of Tampa. Indeed, as Barreiro told the St. Petersburg Times, Scientologists had even written parts of the legislation. Both Barriero and Crist had been friendly with the church: They were guest speakers at a Scientology celebration where Crist touted the legislation and Barriero gave the church an award for volunteer work following the 2004 hurricanes.

The legislation spurred heated battles in the Florida statehouse and put Scientologists and CCHR up against a host of medical and psychological organizations, including the Florida Medical Association, the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Psychological Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Department of Children and Families, and the Florida School Psychologists Association. Scientologists Kelly Preston and Kirstie "Fat Actress" Alley testified in Tallahassee on behalf of their church. At one point, Alley wept so hard -- "This isn't an issue about psychiatrist vs. non, but about the children" -- that she could barely get the words out. "It's tough lobbying against movie stars," says Daughton of the Florida Psychiatric Society. "Some of it was just surreal."

On the serious side, the legislation places Scientologists in conflict with the U.S. Surgeon General, whose office released a report in 2001 stating that one in 10 children and adolescents in the United States suffers from mental illness, but fewer than one in five of these children gets treatment in any given year. Where the CCHR sees an epidemic of drugging kids that don't have real problems, the Surgeon General sees millions of kids whose real problems are going undiagnosed and untreated.

Florida House Bill 209 stipulated that teachers or other school personnel would not "initiate" a diagnosis related to any psychiatric disorder. Lawmakers feared that if a teacher was concerned about a child and then alerted parents, which led to a diagnosis, the teacher would be in violation of the law. "It was a chilling bill because it signaled to the teacher that don't you dare suggest that there may be a problem," says Jim McDonough, who runs the Florida Office of Drug Control, which is also responsible for suicide prevention in the state.

Figueroa from CCHR argues that suggesting that a child could have a problem is a smear itself. "It's a violation of their rights to even suggest that they go into the psychiatric industry, because they're suggesting that there is something mentally wrong with the child," he says.

The bill was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

The other bill, House Bill 909, dealt with how the foster care and juvenile justice systems handle kids' mental health issues -- a big topic since child psychiatrists maintain that many kids end up in the justice system because of undiagnosed mental illnesses. "Essentially, we're locking up kids that have mental disorders," says Gruttadaro of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. But this bill explicitly limited any treatment of such disorders by requiring a "non-psychiatric medical specialist" to evaluate children for "nutritional deficiencies, heavy-metal toxicity and hypoglycemia," among other possible causes of problems, before psychotropic medication could be prescribed.

"That's sort of like saying if you saw someone who appeared to be dying of a heart attack, you had to rule out everything else before you treated for a heart attack," says McDonough, who argued against the legislation. That bill also smeared psychiatrists by implying they're not medical doctors. "That bill makes a false division among medical practitioners," says Dr. Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who has studied Scientology. "Psychiatrists are trained doctors. The bill implies that psychiatrists as medical practitioners can't be trusted." Although that's no surprise to Kent. "Believing that psychiatrists are cosmic devils is a part of the Scientologist doctrine," he says. The bill died in committee.

For his part, McDonough from the Florida Office of Drug Control was surprised by the Scientologists' political zeal. "In the beginning, I didn't realize that this was a concerted effort to actually get through an ideological leaning that had to do with church dogma, in this case, the Church of Scientology, which denies that mental illness exists as a problem, that it can be diagnosed and treated -- when medical science is very clear and very well established on the subject: It does exist, and it can be diagnosed, and it can be treated."

Although both bills failed, a version of one of them did make it into Florida law. In May 2005, Gov. Bush signed legislation that prohibits schools from forcing children to take psychotropic drugs as a condition of going to school. The law allows teachers and school personnel to share observations with the parents about a student's behavior and to suggest outside help. "However," the law reads, "a public school teacher and school district personnel may not compel or attempt to compel any specific actions by the parent or require that a student take medication."

While CCHR brazenly hailed this concession as a victory for itself, the rule that schools couldn't compel a child to take medication was already cemented in federal law. In fact, President Bush signed it into law just last December, as part of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, after much lobbying by the CCHR and its cadre of celebrities. "It's basically a statement that nobody disagrees with," says Daughton, the Florida Psychiatric Society lobbyist.

Florida, however, isn't the end of the story. In Utah, CCHR has been pushing anti-psychiatry bills in the Legislature for the past two years. "This last session, they succeeded in criminalizing schoolteachers who would suggest to parents that their child get a psychological assessment," says Dr. Curt Canning, a psychiatrist in Logan, Utah, who is a spokesperson for the Utah Psychiatric Association. That crime would have been a misdemeanor, Canning says. This March, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. vetoed the bill.

In New Hampshire, similar bills have sought to limit what teachers can and can't say about their perceptions of a child's mental health to parents, according to Michael Cohen, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in New Hampshire. "If you go around the country, you can see that the legislation is almost identical in every state," he says.

While the Scientology-backed CCHR is fighting to keep schools from endorsing therapeutic drugs, supporters of another Scientology-backed program called Narconon are venturing into schools to lecture kids on recreational drugs. The book "What Is Scientology?" boasts that Narconon representatives gave nearly 10,000 free lectures on drug prevention to approximately 1 million students in the '80s and '90s. In the last decade, the programs reached over 1.7 million kids around the country, Narconon officials have said.

According to the Scientology handbook, "Answers to Drugs," the core treatment for those who abuse drugs like marijuana, Ecstasy or cocaine is sweating out drug residuals and other toxins by taking saunas and jogging. Remedies also include the B-complex vitamin niacin, oils and other minerals, a detoxification service which "is available under expert supervision in Scientology organizations and missions around the world."

In the past year, thanks in part to a series of articles by Nanette Asimov in the San Francisco Chronicle, city officials and school districts in California have taken a closer look at the Narconon curriculum. In a letter to the San Francisco Unified School District, Steve Heilig, director of health and education for the San Francisco Medical Society, wrote: "One of our reviewers opined that 'this [curriculum] reads like a high school science paper pieced together from the Internet, and not very well at that.'"

A study by the California Healthy Kids Research Center for the California Department of Education established that Narconon imparts inaccurate information. Narconon's discredited teachings include the pronouncements that drugs burn up the body's vitamins and minerals, that these vitamin deficiencies cause pain (which prompts more drug use), that rapid vitamin and nutrient losses cause the "munchies" among pot smokers, and that drugs build up in fat tissue and spur flashbacks and a hunger for more drugs.

"This theoretical information does not reflect current evidence that is widely accepted and recognized as medically and scientifically accurate," the study found. This February, the California State Superintendent recommended a ban on Narconon in California schools, and San Francisco and Los Angeles school districts have indeed outlawed Narconon.

Despite the setbacks, CCHR and Narconon continue to promote their programs in state legislatures, schools and the public eye. Ultimately, say Scientology critics, the message is not about medicine or science, which Scientology members consistently dismiss, but the church's messianic fervor to spread its religion.

"Their goal is to take over entirely the field of mental health," says Mark Plummer, a former member of Scientology for 14 years, including eight years in the Sea Organization, what Plummer calls an elite core group within Scientology. "Their beliefs stem from Hubbard's dogma that psychiatry is evil. Scientology teaches that psychiatry views people as 'meat bodies' without a spiritual aspect, and that Scientologists alone should be allowed to treat mental illnesses."

Cult watchdog and longtime Scientology foe Rick Ross agrees. "Basically, Hubbard designed Scientology to be the ultimate, if not only way, to address mental health problems," he says. "So psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors associated with mental health are anathema to a Scientologist because Hubbard said so. Psychiatry is outside of the practice of Scientology and the services that it sells."

But you don't have to rely on critics to show that Scientology's attack on psychiatry is part of the church's crusade to rule society. In 1995, David Miscavige, the church's current leader, addressed the International Association of Scientologists in Copenhagen. He told the faithful that the church had two goals as the new millennium approached, dutifully noted by International Scientology News: "Objective one - place Scientology at the absolute center of society. Objective two - eliminate psychiatry in all its forms."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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