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Scientologists push mental health law

Opponents say the legislation takes advantage of lingering stigma and will deter parents from seeking help for their children.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published April 9, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Legislation backed by an offshoot of the Church of Scientology aims to discourage public school students from seeking mental health services.

The measure would require schools to tell parents that any mental health treatment would be part of a student's permanent record, which is true only in limited cases now.

It also would require school officials to tell parents that no medical test can diagnose mental illness, they can refuse psychological screening and that students can't be barred from school activities if they refuse treatment.

The bills (HB209 and SB1766) are being pushed by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, or CCHR, established in 1969 by the Church of Scientology to carry out its mental health mission. Scientologists oppose psychiatry and other mental health services.

The legislation is being fought by several mental health organizations, including the state Office of Suicide Prevention.

The sponsors, Tampa Republican Sen. Victor Crist and Miami Beach Republican Rep. Gustavo Barreiro, were guest speakers recently at Scientology's anniversary celebration. Crist touted the bill at the event and Barreiro gave the church an award for its volunteer efforts during last summer's hurricanes.

Barreiro acknowledged that the Scientology group approached him about sponsoring the bill and wrote parts it. But he said he's sponsoring the bill because he believes in it.

"The path of least resistance is to medicate rather than find creative ways to help kids," Barreiro said. "What is the worst case scenario if this bill passes? We move toward the middle and medicate less."

Said Crist: "Parents ultimately need to have control over their children's medications."

That an arm of the church, once so controversial that politicians avoided being associated with it, is advancing legislation to further one of its main tenets is a testament to the success of Scientology's recent campaign to change its image.

Mary Panton, the CCHR member lobbying for the bill, said parents should worry that their children are labeled mentally ill.

"Parents aren't told that when you accept that label it follows you for the rest of your life," Panton said. "All we want is for the parents to have the full picture."

But opponents say the bill could dissuade some parents from seeking treatment for a child with mental illness.

Mental illness is noted in student records only if the school is involved in treatment or the illness requires special education, according to the state Department of Education.

Opponents say the bill's backers are taking advantage of the lingering shame over mental illness to further an anti-psychiatry agenda.

"No matter how far we have come in understanding depression as a biochemical disease, there is still a certain amount of shame attached to it," said Donna Sicilian, supervisor for social services for the Pinellas County School District. "Bills like these, particularly with the wording that was chosen, perpetuate that."

Sicilian, president of the Florida Association of School Social Workers, said many students need some kind of mental health service, such as counseling during divorce.

The House bill would require schools to include any mental illness diagnosis - including depression and schizophrenia - in a student's permanent record, regardless of whether the student needs special education classes to manage the disorder.

The Senate bill, which would prohibit school officials from making any mental referrals, appears stalled.

Barreiro has been lauded by the Church of Scientology for standing up against what it calls human rights abuses promulgated by psychiatrists.

But, like the church, Barreiro says he is skeptical of the way mental disorders are diagnosed through the observation of symptoms rather than medical tests.

"It isn't like you can take a blood test. ... This is so subjective," Barreiro said.

Barreiro said physical problems are often ignored, leading to the overuse of psychotropic drugs.

The legislation has caught the eye of Jim McDonough, who heads the state's offices of drug control and suicide prevention.

Since speaking out against the bill in committee meetings, McDonough has been bombarded by public records requests from Scientologists asking for proof of his statement that mental illness is a biochemical disorder.

McDonough agrees that some prescription drugs - including anti-anxiety and antipsychotic drugs - are over-prescribed. But his greatest concern, McDonough said, is in ensuring that potentially suicidal teenagers have access to the mental health services.

Teenagers need to understand that mental illness is a disease that can be treated, McDonough said.

"I do resist the abuse of prescription drugs and the unmedical use of psychotropic drugs, but I absolutely believe in the medical basis of mental illness," McDonough said.

[Last modified April 9, 2005, 07:10:29]


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