From my practice as a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Rhode Island, my position as medical director of a children’s psychiatric hospital serving southern New England, and my professional travels around America, I am impressed by the intense and widespread concern that too many children lack access to mental-health services. So many parents, educators, pediatricians, and overwhelmed mental-health professionals are vigorously advocating improved access to such services that I’ve assumed there’s general recognition of the problem. Our challenge is to come up with creative strategies to solve it.
There is one group, however, that thinks otherwise, and I’m realizing that it is a force to be reckoned with: the Church of Scientology.
Over the years I’ve periodically heard of Scientology, but never given it much thought. Frankly, I put Scientology in the same category as creationism: illogical belief systems that contradict science on the basis of dogma.
My approach has been “Live and let live.” I’ve always thought there were better things to do with my time than get into futile debates about either creationism or Scientology. Call me naive, but I never thought the Church of Scientology had enough substance to be taken seriously.
That has changed over recent months, as I’ve seen how effective the Scientologists have been regarding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hearings that resulted in “black-box” warnings on the safety for young people of selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor (SSRI) medications. And the Scientologists have almost achieved the same warning for stimulant medications.
Good organization, targeted lobbying, well-crafted messages, incisive use of celebrity testimony, and careful placement of “consumers” from Scientology front organizations — together, these overshadowed a total lack of evidence and the distortion of science.
I am therefore now making it my mission to learn about Scientology in some detail.
My newfound respect for the effectiveness of Scientology does not go so far as to include its fundamental tenets. L. Ron Hubbard, who in the 1950s founded the Church of Scientology, was a science-fiction writer, and it shows. As described on the Wikipedia Web site (based on information from disaffected members), Scientology believes in extraterrestrial civilizations and alien interventions in earthly events.
For example, Hubbard wrote that 75 million years ago “Xenu,” an alien ruler of the “Galactic Confederacy,” brought billions of people to Earth and blew them up with hydrogen bombs in volcanoes. It’s hard to take this seriously, which is probably why Scientology goes to great lengths to keep it secret.
Yet even if the Church of Scientology’s theology is shaky, its secular activities are thriving. A worldwide network of businesses, educational enterprises, consulting firms, and political-action groups operate to advance Scientology’s aims. And the discreditation of psychology and psychiatry is a high priority for the Church of Scientology. The Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) was formed in 1969 (after Hubbard’s “Dianetics” was rejected as a mental-health treatment) for exactly this purpose.
Through the CCHR and subsidiaries, Scientology has made wild claims about the extent of mental-health professionals’ abusing patients, about psychiatry’s being at the root of the Holocaust, and so on.
And the CCHR has had remarkable political success. In 1986 it got its anti-mental-health, anti-psychotropic-medication manifesto included — almost verbatim — in a widely circulated United Nations document. This spring, the Arizona Senate passed a bill, drafted by the CCHR, mandating that an additional consent form be presented to subjects considering participation in psychiatric research. This form denigrates psychiatric treatment and differentiates “real diseases” from mental illness.
The Florida House recently rejected a similar CCHR bill, which would have mandated that an ominous-sounding statement on the dangers of psychoactive drugs be presented to parents before a school referral for mental-health evaluation. Although the bill was defeated, the movement is gaining momentum across the country.
Freedom of speech is one of the foundations of our democracy, and making one’s case as persuasively as possible to lawmakers (i.e., lobbying) is everyone’s right. I certainly would not want to limit Scientologists even one bit in this regard. Yet Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, and John Travolta, for example, though well-known personalities, are far from experts on best practices in psychiatry or recent developments in neuroscience.
As I’ve learned more about Scientology, I’ve become convinced that mental-health professionals need to provide an organized counterbalance to Scientology’s half-truths and scare tactics. A dismissive approach, as mine used to be, won’t make it against a force as sophisticated, well-financed, and committed as the Church of Scientology. We ignore it at our peril.
Gregory K. Fritz, M.D., an occasional contributor, is editor of The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, a Brown professor of psychiatry, medical director of Bradley Hospital, and director of child and family psychiatry at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.