Roll Call, May 7, 2003
By Emily Pierce, Roll Call Staff
Psychiatrists and at least one lawmaker are taking on the Church of Scientology’s support for a provision in a House special education bill that seeks to prevent teachers from requiring students to take medication for attention-deficit disorder.
“It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) of the provision that was added to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reauthorization, which passed the House last week. “I suspect it probably had its antecedents in the community that believes that all medication for kids with [attention-deficit disorder] is wrong.”
Kennedy and members of the psychiatric profession say the provision, which has been aggressively backed by the Scientology-founded Citizens Commission on Human Rights, is an attempt to achieve what opponents charge is Scientology’s broader goal of abolishing the field of psychiatry altogether.
The provision, sponsored by freshman Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.) and supported by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), is intended to address highly publicized cases in several states of teachers pressuring parents to medicate children with Ritalin and other psychotropic drugs.
Burns said he was aware that the provision was backed by CCHR, but said his goals were far different from those of the Church of Scientology and CCHR, which dispute the American Psychiatric Association’s determination that attention-deficit/hyper-activity disorder, or ADHD, is a medical condition that sometimes requires medication.
“I did not go out and solicit that support,” said Burns. “We’re not trying to take away the scientifically based treatments that we have. But we don’t want to over-diagnose or misuse some of these treatments.”
Another group supporting the provision is the largely grassroots Parents for Label and Drug-Free Education, which has chapters in several states and has been working closely with CCHR. President Bush’s brother, Neil Bush, has also publicized the issue of misdiagnosed ADHD through his education technology company, Ignite! Learning, which he founded in 2001 after his son, Pierce, was erroneously diagnosed with the disorder.
But psychiatric organizations that oppose the provision — including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association, the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and the National Mental Health Association — claim supporters have been duped into supporting a measure that they say could prevent teachers from even talking to parents about the possibility of their child being evaluated by a mental health professional.
“It’s all an organized campaign to discredit the mental health profession and disavow the existence of childhood mental disorders,” said Clarke Ross, CEO of the nonprofit Children and Adults with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder.
CCHR spokeswoman Marla Filidei countered that her organization has been fighting for the provision because of hundreds of stories from parents about teachers and school districts that have urged or pressured parents to put their nonattentive children on drugs, such as Ritalin, to address what may be simple behavior problems or the boredom of a gifted child.
“We’re not saying behaviors don’t manifest themselves in some ways. We’re saying it’s not medical,” said Filidei. “This is a list of disorders that were voted into existence by the American Psychiatric Association.”
CCHR’s Web site states that the group was formed in 1969 by the Church of Scientology and State University of New York psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Szasz to “combat psychiatry’s oppression” and to “expose and help abolish any and all physically damaging practices in the field of mental healing.”
Filidei said CCHR’s “ultimate goal is for the mental health profession and those who support it to admit that there is no medical evidence to support” these disorders.
Psychiatric professional organizations say they have been placed in the untenable position of trying to block a measure that they acknowledge appears to be well-intentioned.
“We’re not opposed to the policy objective that no school should require children to be on medication,” said Ross, whose group is funded in part by pharmaceutical companies, including the makers of Ritalin. “It’s put [us] in an awkward defensive position, and that’s what we’re hearing from legislators, that ‘Well, I’m not going to be the one to stand up and oppose this.’”
Kennedy agreed that it was difficult for lawmakers to come out strongly in opposition to the provision.
“I think people can dismiss this as an innocuous amendment that on a superficial level sounds reasonable,” said Kennedy. “[But] it was obviously written with the intended effect of stopping kids from getting the needed treatment that’s out there.”
Still, opponents of the provision are hoping to find allies in the Senate to prevent the provision from becoming law.
One lobbyist for the psychiatric profession said they have already targeted a number of Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, such as Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.). Psychiatric groups also plan to contact Republicans friendly to the mental health profession, such as Sens. Pete Domenici (N.M.) and John Warner (Va.).
“They’re not too worried about it getting into the Senate [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] bill,” the lobbyist said of conversations with Kennedy’s staff. “Conference committee is where we’ll be focused in the end.”
The lobbyist acknowledged that inclusion of the measure in the IDEA bill caught the psychiatric community off-guard. They are now working diligently against it, but still appear to have an uphill battle.
Burns and other proponents of the legislation say there is a national problem of teachers pushing Ritalin and other ADHD drugs.
Filidei noted as one example the case of Patricia Weathers, who has been travelling with Filidei to lobby the issue in Congress. Weathers heads the New York chapter of Parents for Label and Drug-Free Education.
Weathers said her son was having trouble reading when officials at the public school he was attending told Weathers to put him on medication for learning-disabled children.
Weathers said she complied at first, but that negative side effects caused her to terminate the treatment. When she took her son off the medication, Weathers said the school called child welfare officials who threatened to charge her with medical neglect of her son.
Weathers said she escaped legal action, however, by obtaining a letter from a private psychiatric professional who asserted her right to explore alternative therapies for her son.
“There’s no evidence that it’s an actual abnormality,” said Weathers. “And the school didn’t let me know that I was labeling my son as mentally ill” by putting him on medication.
It’s stories such as Weathers’ that prompted 19 states and now the federal government to pursue laws prohibiting teachers from requiring students to take psychotropic medications. Five states — Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, Utah and Virginia — have enacted laws designed to protect parents’ rights to refuse to medicate their children, according to CCHR.
However, both sides agree that there are no national statistics on how prevalent the practice is.
Kennedy argued that the problem is not as widespread as CCHR makes it seem.
“Clearly, it’s a legitimate issue, but as I said, it’s a mischaracterization of the situation to think that it’s not the exception rather than the rule,” he said.
“The question is whether this is a national issue that requires a national bureaucracy,” added Ross. “It’s all based on these highly publicized situations. … [Weathers’] situation is a very sad experience, but whether Patricia Weathers’ experience is typical — that’s just not been our families’ experience.”
Filidei disputed that notion. “It’s ludicrous to say that legislators would be passing laws based on isolated incidents,” she said.