Scientology’s alien soul theory is no cure for depression

The Telegraph’s Trust Me I’m a Junior Doctor columnist, Max Pemberton, takes issue with the actor Tom Cruise’s renewed attack on psychiatrists

The problem with being a famous film star is that people listen to what you say. The other problem with being a famous film star is that it’s unlikely you can speak with much authority about anything other than your latest blockbuster.

This doesn’t stop Tom Cruise. A few months ago, he took it upon himself to criticise the actress Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressant drugs to manage her postpartum depression, something she’d spoken openly about.

Tom Cruise is a Quack

“Scientology is evil; its techniques are evil; its practice is a serious threat to the community, medically, morally, and socially; and its adherents are sadly deluded and often mentally ill… (Scientology is) the world’s largest organization of unqualified persons engaged in the practice of dangerous techniques which masquerade as mental therapy.”
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology

While he was at it, Cruise embarked on a wholesale condemnation of psychiatry and said it should be outlawed. I let it pass. He’s entitled to his opinions, I thought, even if they are a bit wacky, but no less so than you’d expect from someone who’s a committed member of the bizarre Scientology movement.

But now he’s at it again. In the latest issue of American GQ magazine, he has criticised people with depression for taking medication. Instead, he claims that Scientology – a religion founded in the 1950s by the American science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard that claims to have 10 million members worldwide – holds all the answers.

It has triggered a furore in the US and this time I can’t let it pass. Someone of Cruise’s celebrity commands a global audience and it worries me, as a doctor and trainee psychiatrist, that people who genuinely need psychiatric help might actually be influenced by him.

In the past, society has demonised, punished and tortured those with mental health problems, usually out of ignorance, desperation or contempt. Nor was the medical profession innocent of the abuse of such patients, and this appears to be one of the main planks of Cruise’s anti-psychiatry stance.

But to criticise current practice because of past history makes no sense. It ignores the fact that people, like me, working in mental health do so because they want to help others. It also ignores the undeniable benefit that people receive from mental health professionals.

Given that the brain is the most complex of organs, it is naive and simplistic to think that medication offers all the answers. There is more to solving the problem than

Prozac. Research suggests that the best way to cure depression is with drugs and counselling combined.

I agree that there is often an over-reliance on medication – it’s often erroneously thought to offer a quick fix, both by doctors and patients – and I think it is worrying that so many children are being prescribed drugs such as Ritalin to manage their behavioural problems (another one of Cruise’s bugbears).

But if Cruise is adamant that all psychiatry is wrong and harmful, I want to know exactly what he is advocating instead. In the spirit of investigative journalism, I donned a fake nose and moustache (well, not quite, but I did part my hair slightly differently), and went along to the central London headquarters of the Scientologists to find out for myself.

Getting into the place wasn’t that difficult. In fact, as I was trying to work out the best way to gain entry, someone actually invited me in and offered me a free “stress test”. Intrigued, I said yes. I was asked to sit down and take hold of two metal tubes, while a dial on screen in front of me flickered madly. Sharon, the woman who’d enticed me in, asked me questions.

I told her I was feeling low and she told me I was suffering from depression and that it was likely to be caused by someone near to me, possibly a friend or member of my family. Alarm bells were now ringing full volume. Fear not, I was assured by the wide-eyed, smiling Sharon, Scientology could help.

She wanted to tell me more, she said as she gently guided me further into the building, which was milling with people. The majority of illnesses, she explained, including diabetes, cancer, schizophrenia and depression, were the result of our being “suppressed” by other people, but this suppression could be cleared away by Scientology. Or I think that was what she told me. Her words were cloaked in impenetrable language, which I was informed could be further explained, at a price, on one of the courses run by the centre.

Sharon wouldn’t elaborate further – she wanted me to sign up for a course – but I’ve since learnt that Scientologists believe depression is best alleviated by removing the sufferer’s covering of tiny disembodied souls of aliens dispersed by the Galactic Federation leader Xenu. Ah, yes, I think I missed that lecture at medical school.

This is no joke, though. Scientologists are aiming their “teachings” at people with mental health problems, some of the most vulnerable in society.

In 2001, the Office of National Statistics’ Birth and Maternal Death Linkage Survey found that the single biggest cause of death in women who are pregnant or have recently given birth is suicide. What a dreadful fact. We should be encouraging women to talk about their mental health problems, not vilifying them when they seek treatment.

Similarly, suicide is one of the single biggest killers of young men in Britain and a major contributing factor is their reluctance to seek treatment. Depression is treatable and suicide avoidable, yet it accounts for about one in 100 deaths a year. Of those people with a depressive illness, 10 to 15 per cent will kill themselves.

These people need understanding and help, whether it is drugs or other forms of therapy. What they don’t need is Cruise condemning them for seeking psychiatric treatment.

While undergoing my “stress” test at the Scientologists’ HQ, I’d been aware of the woman sitting next to me. She was a passer-by invited in to take the stress test and she’d started to cry after being asked about her family.

From what I could overhear, her son had died two years previously. She was in real need of help to come to terms with her bereavement. Later on, I saw her wandering around, clutching a handful of leaflets. I wanted to grab her by the hand and run for the hills.

Perhaps Tom Cruise should stick to what he knows best: getting paid vast amounts of money by the film industry to blow up buildings and be chased by aliens.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Telegraph, UK
Apr. 17, 2006 Opinion
Max Pemberton

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 18, 2006.
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