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Mental health bill gets star treatment

Actress Kelly Preston spent the day talking with state lawmakers about a bill supported by the Church of Scientology.

By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
Published April 12, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A Church of Scientology group brought celebrity firepower to the Capitol Tuesday, recruiting actor Kelly Preston to lobby for a bill that aims to restrict mental health services in public schools.

Preston, the wife of actor and prominent Scientologist John Travolta, spent the day talking to lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.

The bill, backed by the Scientology offshoot Citizens Commission on Human Rights, has moved steadily through House committees. But it appears to have hit a snag in the Senate, partly because of its ties to the church.

A similar but less sweeping bill passed the Senate last year with little public attention but died in the House.

"It was not a controversy because no one tried to label it a Scientology bill," said church consultant Mary Repper, referring to last year's legislation.

The St. Petersburg Times reported Saturday that Scientology is backing the legislation. That prompted a stepped up lobbying effort, Repper said.

Last year's bill would have prohibited schools from denying school services to students who refuse to psychotropic drugs. The Church of Scientology, whose spiritual headquarters are in Clearwater, oppose psychiatry and other mental health services.

The current Senate bill, sponsored by Tampa Republican Sen. Victor Crist, would prohibit school officials from referring students for mental health services or passing on observations about abnormal behavior to their parents.

The current House bill, sponsored by Miami Beach Republican Rep. Gus Barreiro, would allow school officials to refer students for mental health services but only after telling parents that no medical test can diagnose mental illness and that any mental disorder will go on a student's permanent record.

Mental health diagnoses are noted in student files only if the school is involved in a student's treatment or the disorder requires special education.

The legislation is opposed by several mental health organizations, including the state Office of Suicide Prevention, which fears it could prevent potentially suicidal teens from getting help.

Jennings and Gov. Jeb Bush have "serious concerns" about the legislation, said spokesman Jacob DiPietre.

"The governor and lieutenant governor side with science, but this administration has an open door policy, and we listen to all sides," Dipietre said.

Supporters of the bill say they don't want to heighten the stigma of mental illness but rather make parents aware of how difficult it is to shed once a child is diagnosed, Preston and others said.

"These psychiatric labelings are not actually medical disorders that can be tested for such as through brain scans," Preston said. Too often parents are intimidated by schools into getting psychotropic drugs for their children, she said.

"These parents need to be aware of the potential dangers of these drugs," Preston said.

[Last modified April 12, 2005, 16:14:02]

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