Industry of Death exhibition on psychiatry walks a fine line

With a name like “Psychiatry: Industry of Death,” visitors to the travelling exhibition in Edmonton likely understand they are not about to get a particularly measured perspective of the mental health profession. What they might not be prepared for is a fright show of the alleged “criminal practices” and “brutalities” of psychiatry, the cause, apparently, of history’s vilest atrocities.

“Our purpose is to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights, period,” says Raphael Francoeur, the museum’s guide, who greets visitors from a folding table near the door. He represents the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), the California-based group presenting the show. Temporarily installed along one of Edmonton’s rougher strips, in a former Army and Navy store, “Psychiatry: Industry of Death” opened last week and runs until Sunday.

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“The most common comment we get is that this is a brave exhibit,” Mr. Francoeur says. “People say, I’ve always had a feeling about psychiatry, but I couldn’t quite spot what it was.’ ”

There’s plenty here for anyone seeking to flesh out unarticulated doubts – and add considerably more – assuming they’re willing to spend two hours in a bridge chair.

Organizers call it a museum. Actually, it’s a film, broken into more than a dozen parts. Visitors sit before a flat-screen television displaying chilling scenes detailing psychiatry’s horrors, shuffle to the next TV, sit down, watch a few more, and so on.

Locals wander in off 97th Street: a trio of middle-aged women, a pair of mohawked punk rocker kids. They sit through two, maybe three videos. They leave. It’s the lunch hour, smiles Mr. Francoeur. People have to get back to work. He predicts many will return later to finish the tour.

Maybe. Then again, some surely have trouble digesting the extraordinarily vitriolic attack. The commission directly blames psychiatrists for the Holocaust, slavery, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Soviet Gulags, apartheid and more. There is fascinating, if uncomfortable footage of doctors applying bizarre, cruel-looking techniques to animals and, in the most difficult scenes, children.

Today, we are told, an alarming number of psychiatrists molest their patients. They goad them to violence so they can bill for institutionalization.

Ancient “tranquillizer chairs” and “ovary compressors” have given way to hospitalization and drugs, but the profession remains dubious, intones the narrator – whose menacing baritone could well be the same one behind voice-overs for slasher film trailers. “Psychiatry’s damaging and lethal treatments are infamous. Psychiatrists claim their methods have changed. This shocking exhibit will give you the facts. You decide.”

With pioneers such as B.F. Skinner – who, we learn, kept his baby in an experimental box, deprived of human contact – and Walter Freeman, who invented lobotomies by driving ice picks into brains, mental health offers rich ground for those in search of ugly skeletons.

And no group is keener to discredit psychiatrists than the CCHR. Unless you make it to the final video display, mounted beneath the slogan, “You are safe so long as we are here,” you might leave wondering why. The CCHR, the narrator mentions in the closing scene, was founded in 1969 by the Church of Scientology (which happens to have a branch just yards from this old department store). There are travelling “Industry of Death” exhibits in Asia, Australia, the United States and Europe. This is Canada’s first.

“A major purpose of Scientology is to destroy psychiatry and replace it with its own pseudo-counselling techniques. And CCHR is one of Scientology’s front-group weapons attempting to achieve that goal,” says Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist specializing in new religions and cults. Scientology holds that psychiatrists are “cosmic demons,” he says. Recall Tom Cruise’s televised rant last year against the profession.

“Scientology is a Church that does what it does,” Mr. Francoeur insists. “CCHR is a human rights group.” Many psychiatry critics unaffiliated with Scientology endorse the commission’s work, though it is heavily funded by Scientology and many of its staff are Scientologists.

Few, meanwhile, are doctors, adds Mr. Kent, who caught the “Industry of Death” exhibit in California, where it debuted in 2005. “So, since it’s ideologically driven, and most people at CCHR are not medically trained … you don’t know where the truth ends and the propaganda begins.”

Here, you’ll find some of both. Psychiatrists’ eugenics theories helped legitimize Hitler’s racist programs, certainly, as well as other persecuting regimes. But won’t most visitors know, or at least suspect, there was a bit more to it? It’s less likely they’ll know, however, that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda architect of 9/11, is not a psychiatrist as the CCHR claims. Neither was B.F. Skinner, for that matter. And he didn’t keep his kids locked in a box.

Even today, governments routinely abuse psychiatric science, Mr. Kent allows, falsely institutionalizing enemies. And the commission’s work has led to the closure of many appalling asylums around the world. Also, it’s true that until the pharmacological revolution in the fifties, doctors resorted to pretty unpleasant, misguided measures to treat psychosis (though it’s hard not to leave wondering what similarly ghastly details you could dig up about, say, early dentistry).
There are tales here of Paxil patients getting violent or suicidal, Mr. Kent adds, but none of the scores of patients who do well on psychotropic meds – or patients who died, or killed, for lack of them.

Richard Dougherty, a CCHR spokesman, who volunteers to me that he is not a Scientologist, agrees that what is, to him, the most critical part of the exhibit – psychiatry’s over-readiness to medicate high-strung children – might get lost among more drastic claims and an emphasis on the past (he became an activist after working in a group home and watching kids reacting badly to psychiatric drugs). The group might reorganize the museum as it travels Canada, he suggests – next to Toronto, then Ottawa and Vancouver, and after translating to French, Quebec. The goal is to make the exhibit as effective as possible, after all. Whatever it takes to achieve the CCHR’s objectives: putting psychiatrists permanently out of business.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday August 9, 2007.
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