More Canadian children are taking Ritalin than ever before, even as critics of the drug grow more wary of its potential side effects. In an exclusive five-part series on the drug, the National Post examines how Ritalin works, its enduring mysteries, potential dangers, and alternative approaches to helping children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
In a lavish ceremony, Priscilla Presley -- Elvis's widow -- recently presented a human rights award to a "courageous" New York mother, Patricia Weathers. Mrs. Weathers had fought a long battle with her son's school to get her 11-year-old son Michael off Ritalin, which she said caused him mental harm. "This sort of problem is quietly epidemic in our schools today," Ms. Presley said.
"Too many parents have been unknowingly disenfranchised by a schooling system which runs according to the drug-based dictates of psychiatrists and psychologists, rather than sound and workable education principles."
Mrs. Weathers' plight is well- known in the United States, where a backlash against such psychiatric drugs as Prozac and Ritalin is in full swing. What is less well-known is that this backlash has been orchestrated by the controversial Church of Scientology. Indeed, some argue that the Church has triggered the uproar almost single-handedly.
Ms. Presley is a Scientologist. The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) -- which awarded Mrs. Weathers its prize -- was formed by the Church in 1969. In fact, the Washington lawyer who launched a U.S. class- action suit against Ritalin's makers and the American Psychiatric Association is also a senior Scientology official.
Scientology, in its fight against Ritalin, is pursuing a broader agenda: to undermine the psychiatric profession. "While alerting parents and teachers to the dangers of Ritalin, the real target of the campaign is the psychiatric profession itself," the Church stated over a decade ago in its newspaper, Scientology Today.
The Los Angeles-based Church, founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has been a long-time foe of psychiatry. Its teachings include Mr. Hubbard's belief that humans are made of clusters of spirits, called "thetans," who were banished to Earth about 75 million years ago by an evil galactic ruler named Xenu. The Church has assembled a celebrity cast of followers, including actors John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley.
Mr. Hubbard's breakthrough came in 1950, when he published the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. One of the Church's staples is a process called clearing, using a crude device -- essentially a lie detector -- called an E-meter, which measures electrical changes in the skin while subjects reveal intimate details of their lives. Clearing comes from Mr. Hubbard's claim that unhappiness springs from mental aberrations called "engrams." Counselling sessions with the E-meter clear these engrams from the mind.
Psychiatrists and psychologists called the idea worthless, which infuriated Mr. Hubbard. In his writings, which form the basis of Church doctrines, he said 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."
Scientology has also won a reputation for taking its enemies to court. Beginning in the late 1980s, it supported a series of lawsuits across the United States, attacking psychiatrists and schools with claims that attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not a valid diagnosis, stimulant drugs are overprescribed, and the doctors who make such prescriptions are corrupt or unethical. Many of these cases were handled by John Coale, a Washington lawyer and senior Scientologist.
None of the cases has been successful in court. However, "these efforts, which have been widely reported in the news media, have created a climate of fear among physicians, parents and educators and have sown anxiety and confusion among the general public," the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 1998.
Church operatives also work at raising awareness of potential side effects of psychiatric drugs, often with great success.
In the wake of the massacre at Columbine, Col., CNN interviewed Dr. Mary Ann Block, author of the book No More Ritalin -- Treating ADHD Without Drugs. She quoted a study noting Ritalin's similarity to cocaine in its ability to cause psychotic episodes.
The network later discovered Dr. Block is a medical consultant to CCHR, and the study she quoted was a report written the day after the massacre by CCHR vice-president Marla Filidei, amid reports that one of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris, had been taking the antidepressant Luvox.
Ms. Filidei stands by her report, which she says was drawn from medical literature. Despite its bizarre origins, much of Scientology's stand on ADHD and the overprescription of Ritalin comes across as common sense.
"If [doctors] were to be honest with a parent, they'd say, 'We think your kid has this thing called ADHD, we can't scientifically prove it -- it's a list of behaviours that was voted into existence -- but your kid displays these symptoms ... and we'd like to put him on what the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says is a Schedule 2 drug that is highly addictive and has side effect,' " Ms. Filidei says. "But when you say to a parent, it's a neurobiologic disorder, it's proven, your kid has it, it's a benign, safe drug, it's just a lie."
As for the accusations that Scientology is only attacking psychiatry so it can sell its own mental health approach, Ms. Filidei says: "Our purpose is just simply not to get people to become members of the Church, it's to get them to abolish [psychiatric] abuses, particularly in the area of children," she says.