When a Sydney court was told last month that a 25–year-old woman stabbed three family members, killing her father and sister, the Church of Scientology was thrust into the media spotlight.
A medical report filed in court alleged the woman was mentally ill, but stopped taking prescription medicine and receiving treatment, apparently because of her family’s Scientology beliefs. The court also heard that she resumed taking the medication prior to the attacks.
What ultimately led to the tragedy is for the courts to decide. But the case has renewed debate about Scientology’s objection to psychiatric care.
Professor Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, is concerned that Scientology may influence vulnerable individuals and says the negative health implications of this have never been adequately addressed.
“That, from a medical point of view, needs to be confronted,” he says.
“Individuals, particularly vulnerable individuals, may be taken in and a avoid treatment.”
It’s a concern that is not new. The religion was banned for some years in Victoria after a 1965 State Government-commissioned inquiry that said Scientologists were conditioned to avoid psychiatrists and this “may have tragic results”.
Today, the Church of Scientology says there are constant “horror stories” of people who are adversely affected by psychiatric medication “who repeatedly report their inability to get anybody to listen or take notice”.
Professor David Copolov, professor of psychiatry at Monash University in Melbourne, rejects Scientology’s view that psychiatric drugs are dangerous and ineffective.
“For Scientology to say there are no data to support [psychiatric medication’s] usefulness is clearly incorrect,” says Professor Copolo , who was the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee’s psychiatric expert from 1992 to 2000.
“All medications have side effects, but the balance between efficacy and side effects [with psychiatric medications] is hugely in favour of efficacy.
“We have to counter this anti-psychiatric rhetoric. To the extent that it discourages seriously ill people from seeking and receiving treatment it could be very dangerous.”
Public affairs director for the Church of Scientology in Australia Ms Virginia Stewart told Australian Doctor that the church does “not agree with psychiatric drugs for a myriad of scientifically proven reasons”.
“It is not based on belief, but on fact, that drugs do not resolve mental problems,” she says.
“They cover them up and in doing so often cause great harm, including a worsening of the original feelings of depression, resulting in violence or suicide.”
She says this is why the church, which has 250,000 members in Australia and 10 million internationally, founded a separate organisation called the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) in 1969. The Australian Scientology web site explains that the CCHR’s role is “to expose and bring to an end the brutalizing of individuals in the name of ‘mental health’”.
The CCHR claims to operate in more than 100 countries and is an active force in Australia, making submissions to government inquiries, forming relationships with other interest groups, issuing press releases and lobbying politicians. It claims to have exposed the Chelmsford Private Hospital’s notorious deep sleep therapy and is now lobbying strongly against pregnant women and children receiving ECT, against involuntary psychiatric treatment and the “drugging of children” for ADHD.
The Australia CCHR web site says: “Recent studies show that children who take psychiatric stimulants for ‘ADHD’ are 46% more likely to commit one felony and 36% more likely to commit two or more felonies. Instead of overcoming supposed learning difficulties, these children are at risk of moving toward a life of crime.
A string of sensational messages flash across the web site, borrowing spelling and facts from the international site: “There are 374 ways for psychiatrists to label you mentally ill; every 75 seconds another innocent citizen is encarcerated [sic] by psychiatry; two million children and adolescents are on antidepressants that can induced violent or suicidal behaviour.”
The Australian site describes ECT as one of the “two main treatments used by psychiatrists today” and says its effectiveness relies on “overwhelming and damaging the individual”.
Professor Patrick McGorry, professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne, says the CCHR presents a very distorted picture of modern psychiatry.
“They’re projecting … that psychiatry as a profession would endorse widespread use of Ritalin, involuntary treatment of ECT,” he says.
“All of these things we have cautious views about. They’re misrepresenting psychiatry’s position and modern psychiatry’s perspective.
He says the CCHR uses evocative issues such as ECT to more deeply entrench a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest version of psychiatry, which is “not what most people’s experience of psychiatry is”.
Professor McGorry says there is a great potential for CCHR fear-mongering to cause harm if it leads to a delay in people receiving treatment.
He says both the CCHR and Scientology “haven’t been tackled adequately” despite their beliefs having potential to interfere with vulnerable people’s health care.
“It is very damaging and yet they’ve not been brought to account for that behaviour,” he says.
“Great harm … can flow from the stance they have taken.”
Executive director of the CCHR’s National Office for Australia Ms Shelley Wilkins rejects that psychiatrists are cautious.
“It cannot be proven that anyone has any of psychiatry’s disorders and their DSM actually says, for example, that there are no laboratory tests for ADHD or schizophrenia, so caution does not come into it. Any use of Ritalin, involuntary commitment or ECT is therefore based on a fraudulent diagnosis and abuse,” Ms Wilkins says.
In response to the suggestion of CCHR fear-mongering, she says psychiatry “causes fear with its brutal treatments and dangerous drugs”.
“People do not want to seek help from psychiatry because their treatments can cause great harm and even death and they fear being involuntarily detained and treated,” she says.
“CCHR is dedicated to informing the public about the dangers of psychiatric treatments, and as a result lives are saved.”
Chief psychiatrist for NSW Associate Professor John Basson acknowledges widespread concerns in Australia about Ritalin being over prescribed.
He also says some US courts have deemed that Prozac can make some people violent. “These circumstances seem to be rare, but they are to be concerned about,” he says.
But Professor Basson says the CCHR uses extreme, negative examples from the world literature to evidence its stance against psychiatric medication.
“It uses extreme examples to make an argument about the general use of the drug,” he says.
“A lot of adults take these drugs and get relief from serious and debilitating circumstances.”
He says those who are influenced by the CCHR “might choose not to go and get help. They may try and do without and become very sick indeed”.
Professor Basson says there is a danger in not treating mental illnesses that recur.
“Those that recur would recur much more seriously. The [risks] in not doing anything are very bad indeed.”
He says psychotic episodes can cause people with schizophrenia to lose key non-verbal communication skills and experienced a degree of emotional blunting.
“It damages people’s capacity to have good intimate relationships,” he says.
“It could lead to long-term disability for people, which we feel [with treatment] we could avoid.”
Professor Basson says poor compliance is already a problem, with about 50% of mentally ill patients not taking prescribed medication.”
There is a danger [the CCHR] encourages that percentage to stay high when we are trying to reduced it.”
It was while studying medicine in Perth about 20 years ago that Dr Helen Smith became a Scientologist.
The New Zealand GP says her interest was sparked after reading Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health, written by Scientology’s founder L Ron Hubbard.
“I tried it out on family and friends and saw it had something in it – it actually helped people,” Dr Smith says.
“It’s basically a study of the mind. There is a part of your mind that contains all of the painful experiences … Dianetics allows the person to go back to those moments, uncover what happened at the time and get relief from it.”
Dr Smith, who is also a commissioner for the church-founded Citizens Commission for Human Rights (CCHR), gives the example of an acquaintance who experienced bad headaches after a car accident.
“He … had a memory of the accident, and as we went through it, he got memory back of smacking his head through the windscreen and as he spoke about it he got relief,” Dr Smith says.
Such is her faith in the process that she recommends it to patients with psychosomatic symptoms.
“In my current practice, if I have anybody who is having trouble with grief and loss, who is psychosomatic, I’ll get a dianetics counsellor in the community to help them out with it,” she says.
She says these patients also benefit after a couple of sessions. She says it is not used as a way to recruit people to Scientology.
Dr Smith says about 20% of her week is spent working with CCHR to educate youth about human rights issues and will attend a forum this month for 13-18-year-olds. She also has a role liaising with New Zealand MPs and helps the CCHR document incidents of psychiatric abuse, working through medical records obtained using freedom of information laws.
The rest of her time is spent at the Holistic Medical Centre in Auckland – a practice she established four years ago, which is staffed by 4-5 GPs, a Naturopath and a nurse.
She says the clinic is upfront with patients about its policy that doctors do not prescribe antipsychotics, antidepressants or Valium.
Patients already taking these medications are told they need to keep seeing the doctor who prescribed them.
“If someone is already a psychiatric patient and in that whole world, I say if you’re on those drugs and on that road, you carry on with that. I don’t interrupt that in any way,” Dr Smith says.
However, she runs these patients through a full physical check and reviews their biochemistry and haematology indices.
She says patients often have low vitamin D, which makes them feel depressed, unable to sleep and low in energy, and psychotic patients with low vitamin D become more stable if the level is raised.
Dr Smith has three times in her career managed people experiencing a psychotic episode. She says these patients need to be given a light sedative and watched over until the episode has ended. Then they should be given a thorough physical check and provided with good nutrition.
Dr Smith says she prefers not to use diagnostic terms such a depression used within the DSM because it is “a bit arbitrary”. She says these labels tend to put people on a path to medication.
“Sometimes if you get protein in their diet, they feel better.”
In terms of non-drug therapies, Dr Smith says she doesn’t oppose cognitive behavioural therapy if it creates an improvement.
I’m into Hippocratic oath – do no harm,” she says.
The Church of Scientology is open about its views on psychiatry. Put simply, it rejects the notion that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and it rejects psychiatric diagnosis and medication.
“We do not believe people should be stigmatized with labels and ‘treated’ with ‘cures’ that have no basis in fact or science and are brutal in the extreme,” its Australian web site says.
The site says psychiatry has a history of abuse, listing past treatments such as ice baths, insulin shock and ECT that breaks teeth and bones, causes memory loss and “regression into a vegetable [sic] state.”
“Next it was pre-frontal lobotomies with an ice pick driven through the eye socket. Today it is drugs. The reason is obvious. Drugs are more palatable to the public than [sic] 220 volts of electricity or an ‘apple-cored’ brain and a lot more profitable – by billions of dollars a year,” it continues.
The site says it is frightening that psychiatry is pushing “to label and stigmatize an entire nation and its youth with labels of mental disorders” and despite there being no evidence that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain, “antidepressants are prescribed like candy”.
It says drugs for ADHD and depression do not offer a cure, but once people start taking them “it’s an unending series of pills that one cannot even quit taking because of the withdrawal effects”.
When it comes to the issue of mentally ill people posing a risk to themselves or others, public affairs director for the Church of Scientology in Australia Ms Virginia Stewart says they should be placed in a safe, quiet facility, sedated if this is required, and given good nutrition, the opportunity to rest and time to recover.
“Such people must be treated with decency, not placed in open wards full of drugged-out psychotic people who have been chemically restrained. They must undergo full, searching medical tests by a non-psychiatric doctor, conducted too find any physical condition, underlying the person’s behaviour,” she told Australian Doctor.
“They should not be given drugs which have been proven to worsen their condition and they should be healed.”
The WA charter of the church-founded Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) says criminal statutes should be relied on to address instances where a “dangerous offence” is committed.
“Studies demonstrate that psychiatric predictions of dangerousness are no better than flipping a coin. Psychiatrists cannot ‘cure’ what is essentially criminal or anti-social conduct,” it states.
It quotes US professor emeritus of psychiatry Dr Thomas Szasz who co-founded the CCHR with Scientology, as saying: “All criminal behaviour should be controlled by means of criminal law, from the administration of which psychiatrists, ought to be excluded.”
When asked if Scientology opposes cognitive behavioural therapy, Ms Stewart responded: “I personally do not know what cognitive behavioural therapy entails and thus don’t have any comment. We do not agree with treatments such as electric shock treatment or lobotomies or aversion therapy – or other practices still bent on imposing physical treatments for mental ills.”
Given time to research CBT further, she still declined to comment, but said” “There should be far more talking therapies. If you can address the underlying cause and you resolve it, then it’s a whole different game.
“If someone has a relationship problem and you address the relationship problem if they were depressed because of [it] there would be some likelihood of diminishing the depression. When someone can go to a GP and get a psychiatric medication, I think that sucks.”
Ms Stewart says that while Scientology rejects psychiatry, many members see chiropractors and naturopaths, and they rely on GP to diagnose the physical issues that may cause mental symptoms.
“If someone was acting extremely depressed, they would immediately be sent to a very good doctor and tested inside and out, and every single time something is found with their physical health. If you fix that you might get an improvement in their depression symptoms.”
But she says the counselling offered by Scientology works to enhance mental health.
“Someone who was a Scientologist and had dianetics counselling would definitely have, statistically, less chance of experiencing mental health issues,” she says.
The principle underlying dianetics, which for Scientologists is “the modern science of mental health”, is that when people are unconscious or have lowered awareness, due to being sick or exhausted, their unconscious mind takes a detailed recording of everything that takes place. This recording, called an ‘engram’, is stored in the mind and can take control – like a form of hypnosis. This is evident when people are anxious or have panic attacks.
“They [engrams] can make you think or behave irrationally,” Ms Stewart says.
Dianetics counselling enables people to remember the recorded event and pull it into their “analytical mind” where they have control over it, she says.
“When they can see it [the recorded incident] and remember it, it loses that hypnotic power.”
Ms Stewart says Scientology also offers “assists”, which are used for a range of conditions, ranging from toothache to trauma and are “very effective” at making drunk people sober.
“An assist is not a substitute for medical treatment and does not attempt to cure injuries requiring medical aid, but is complementary … It is even doubtful if full healing can be accomplished by medical treatment alone and it is certain that an assist greatly speeds recovery.
“Often people have emotional upsets and stress prior to getting sick or injured, and unless this is addressed and the problem removed, then the conditions can persist, despite the best intentions of the medical practitioners.”
Some assists involve touch, while others are spoken. Ms Stewart says the assist for a cold involves asking specifically worded questions that the person answers until they “come to their own realisation” about the loss that has caused them to get a cold.
“They could have had a large fight with someone or a threatened loss,” she says.
“You ask the person and they have to answer you until the person has their own realisation [about the cause].”