Raj Persaud: A dangerous war on psychiatry

The public's fear of psychiatric drugs has itself become a serious public health problem

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The Association, which represents more than 36,000 physicians specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, challenged Cruise's assertion that psychiatry lacks scientific merit. "Rigorous, published, peer-reviewed research clearly demonstrates that treatment [of mental illness] works," they asserted.

Cruise's comments come as no surprise to many psychiatrists, not because much of his recent behaviour has been found so strange by the press, but more because it is widely reported he is a follower of the Church of Scientology, which is virulently against psychiatry. Stephen Kent, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, points out in a recent paper in the academic journal 'Religion' that the "war" against psychiatry was integral to the mission of the founder of Scientology, Ron Hubbard, since his first book, Dianetics, in 1950, and continues to this day. Hubbard indicated as far back as the 1960s that one of the key enemies of Scientology was the profession of psychiatry. This small but internationally connected group, Hubbard claimed, according to Professor Kent, was behind the "lies and slander" that both the press and government agencies received about Scientology.

But Hubbard went further, Kent points out, and argued that psychiatry was not just a threat to Scientology but was a vehicle to undermine and destroy the West through purveying techniques like electric shocks and brain operations. Hubbard believed that psychiatrists had sought to obtain power by becoming the contemporary "confessors" and counsellors of not just the ordinary person but also the politically powerful.

Kent's paper, entitled 'The globalization of Scientology: Influence, Control and Opposition in Transnational Markets' shows that psychiatrists took on the classic characteristics of evil in a cartoon printed in the first International Edition of Scientology's publication, Freedom, where a front-page drawing depicted eight psychiatrists as horned, goateed, tailed, and cloven-hoofed devils injecting "patients" with drugs, and performing electric shock and lobotomies. Since psychiatry is Scientology's alleged cosmic enemy, his followers want to see the profession destroyed, and its functions in society replaced by Scientology.

Kent demonstrates the specific social action group designed to eliminate psychiatry through political and press lobbying is the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, whose efforts are co-ordinated worldwide under Scientology's Office of Special Affairs International. Its efforts to portray psychiatry in a negative light has led CCHR to support the rights of patients, occasionally uncovering instances of questionable, if not calamitous, psychiatric care. In 1981, for example, Scientologists received national attention in Canada for exposure of the demonstrably detrimental effects of institutionalisation upon a psychiatric patient, Henry Kowalski, who was confined with the criminally insane while receiving unpleasant drug treatments and electric shocks.

While patients have occasionally benefited from the Church of Scientology publicising examples of poor psychiatric care, this doesn't mean that the general thrust of Scientology's case against psychiatry stands up. They appear to be reflexively against medication and other scientifically supported treatments which often are needed and are indeed life-saving.

Some psychiatric patients in the US and Canada recently became so convinced about the alleged dangers of psychiatric treatments, as a result of Scientology's campaigns, that they stopped taking their medication. US psychiatrists have concluded that the public's fear of psychiatric drugs has itself become a potentially serious public health problem, as people begin to avoid and fear treatment.

The most irresponsible aspect of Cruise's comments, as well as the approach of Scientology, is not so much their criticism of psychiatry as their failure to provide a valid alternative response to major mental illnesses. What are the treatments they advocate? Do they run centres for the clinically depressed where they take legal responsibility for their care? And do they publish data proving the effectiveness of their methods?

Cruise should outline what treatments he would recommend and show us the evidence that they work. Otherwise, he is just launching a War of the Worlds in his provocative comments. This may make good film publicity, but it does no service to the mentally ill.

The writer is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry

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