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Suits, Protests Fuel a Campaign Against Psychiatry

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In recent years, a national debate flared over Ritalin, a drug used for more than three decades to treat hyperactivity in children.

Across the country, multimillion-dollar lawsuits were filed by parents who contended that their children had been harmed by the drug.

Major news organizations--including The Times--devoted extensive coverage to whether youngsters were being turned into emotionally disturbed addicts by psychiatrists and pediatricians who prescribed Ritalin.

Protests were staged at psychiatric conferences, with airplanes trailing banners that read, "Psychs, Stop Drugging Our Kids," and children on the ground carrying placards that pleaded, "Love Me, Don't Drug Me."

In 1988, the clamor reached a point where 12 U.S. congressmen demanded answers from the Food and Drug Administration and three other federal agencies about the safety of Ritalin. The FDA assured the legislators that the drug is "safe and effective if it is used as recommended."

The Ritalin controversy seemed to emerge out of nowhere. It frightened parents, put doctors on the defensive and suddenly called into question the judgment of school administrators who authorize the drug's use to calm disruptive, hyperactive children.

The uproar over Ritalin was triggered almost single-handedly by the Scientology movement.

In its fight against Ritalin, Scientology was pursuing a broader agenda. For years, it has been attempting to discredit the psychiatric profession, which has long been critical of the self-help techniques developed by the late L. Ron Hubbard and practiced by the church.

The church has spelled out the strategy in its newspaper, "Scientology Today."

"While alerting parents and teachers to the dangers of Ritalin," the newspaper stated, "the real target of the campaign is the psychiatric profession itself. . . . And as public awareness continues to increase, we will no doubt begin to see the blame for all drug abuse and related crime move onto the correct target--psychiatry."

The contempt Scientologists hold for the psychiatric profession is rooted in Hubbard's writings, which constitute the church's doctrines. He once wrote, for example, that if psychiatrists "had the power to torture and kill everyone, they would do so. . . . Recognize them for what they are; psychotic criminals--and handle them accordingly."

Hubbard's hatred of psychiatry dated back to the 1950 publication of his best-selling book "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." It was immediately criticized by prominent mental health professionals as a worthless form of psychotherapy.

Hubbard used his church as a pulpit to attack psychiatrists as evil people, bent on enslaving mankind through drugs, electroshock therapy and lobotomies. He convinced his followers that psychiatrists were also intent on destroying their religion.

A church spokesman said that psychiatrists are "busy attempting to destroy Scientology because if Scientology has its voice heard, it will most assuredly remove them from the positions of power that they occupy in our society."

Scientologists call Ritalin a "chemical straitjacket" leading to delinquency, violence and even suicide. They claim that it is being used to indiscriminately drug hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren each day. Medical professionals say the Scientology claims cannot be supported and are causing undue panic.

Known generically as methylphenidate hydrochloride, Ritalin is intended for youngsters afflicted with "attention deficit disorder," more commonly known as hyperactivity. It is a central nervous system stimulant that, paradoxically, produces calmer behavior in young people. The government classifies it as a controlled substance.

FDA statistics show that between 600,000 and 700,000 people (70% of them children or adolescents) are being treated with Ritalin. Between 1980 and 1987, the latest period for which statistics are available, the FDA received 492 complaints of serious problems resulting from the drug. The agency said this level of complaints indicates the drug is safe.

Medical experts agree that some doctors may be too quick to prescribe Ritalin as the sole treatment for problems that warrant a more moderate or creative approach. But, they add, the drug itself is not to blame.

Scientologists have waged their war against Ritalin and psychiatry through the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization formed by the church in 1969 to investigate mental health abuses.

Its members often wear shirts reading "Psychiatry Kills" and "Psychbusters." They have recently broadened their campaign against psychiatric drugs to include Prozac, the nation's top selling anti-depressant, with 1989 sales estimated at $350 million.

Throughout the world, the commission has consistently fought against electroshock therapy and lobotomies, practices that Scientologists believe are barbarous and should be banned.

In the U.S., the commission has encouraged parents to file lawsuits against doctors who have prescribed Ritalin to their children and then has provided nationwide publicity for the suits.

The commission's president is veteran Scientologist Dennis Clarke. Although he is not a doctor, Clarke has positioned himself as the country's most quoted Ritalin expert. In public appearances, Clarke cites a litany of alarming statistics, some of which are exaggerated, unsubstantiated or impossible to verify.

Some medical experts agree that the use of Ritalin in the schools has grown dramatically over the last two decades, but not to the level claimed by Clarke.

For example, Clarke has maintained that in Minneapolis, 20% of children under 10 attending mostly white schools in 1987 were on Ritalin and the percentage was double that in predominantly black schools.

"If they are saying that is the statistic in Minneapolis, they are lying," said Vi Blosberg, manager of health services in the 39,000-student district. She said that fewer than 1% of students districtwide were taking Ritalin or other drugs used to control hyperactivity during the year in question.

Using its statistics, the Citizens Commission in late 1987 lobbied the congressional Republican Study Committee to push Congress for an investigation of Ritalin.

Its campaign attracted the attention of Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.), who is on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Ballenger's legislative director, Ashley McArthur, said she met with the Citizens Commission because the statistics about Ritalin abuse "caught our attention." She said Ballenger and 11 congressional colleagues sent letters to four federal agencies, including the FDA, requesting reports on Ritalin usage and safety.

McArthur said she later learned that Scientologists were behind the Citizens Commission and that some of the information they provided did not "add up."

"Once we knew their whole organization was run by Scientologists, it put a whole different perspective on it," McArthur said. "I think they'll try to use any group they can."

A recent Scientology publication said the anti-Ritalin effort was "one of (the commission's) major campaigns in the 1980s."

"Hundreds of newspaper articles and countless hours of radio and television shows on this issue resulted in thousands of parents around the world contacting (the commission) to learn more about the damage psychiatrists are creating on today's children," the article stated.

"The campaign against Ritalin brought wide acceptance of the fact that (the commission) and the Scientologists are the ones effectively doing something about the problems of psychiatric drugging," the publication added.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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