Scientology reaches out to troubled with ad campaign

St. Petersburg Times/February 8, 2002
By Deborah O'Neil

Billboards are going up in major U.S. cities claiming to have an answer for those in distress. Some mental health experts question the church's motive.

For Americans troubled by economic uncertainty, fear and grief, 1,100 Church of Scientology billboards going up in major U.S. cities claim to have an answer.

"No matter how bad it is ... SOMETHING CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT."

The billboards are part of an unprecedented national media campaign by Scientology to reach what it calls "a nation still troubled by the Sept. 11 attacks."

But the blitz disturbs some mental health experts who express concern about both the church's motive and its expertise in treating emotional distress.

The advertisements promote the services of Scientology's volunteer ministers, parishioners trained in basic Scientology principles that the church says can solve problems ranging from grief to marital difficulties to drug addiction.

"Call a Scientology volunteer minister," the ads read: 1-800-HELP-4-YU. And while the billboards don't say so, the services are free, the church says.

The Church of Scientology is spending $1.1-million on the billboards, which have gone up in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Cincinnati and this week in Clearwater. More are slated for Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Washington, D.C., Chicago and St. Louis.

In New York alone, there are 1,000 billboards, many mounted in the subway system. Clearwater, the spiritual headquarters of Scientology, is getting eight, and some of those will rotate to Tampa.

It's a "pretty impressive" campaign, said Robert Coen, a longtime predictor of advertising spending and senior vice president at Universal McCann in New York. It doesn't match the efforts of mega brands such as Coca-Cola or Loreal, he said, but for a single entity, it's "a significant effort to get their message across."

The campaign grew out of Sept. 11, said spokeswoman Linda Simmons Hight of the Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles. Since the attacks, the ranks of the volunteer ministers have grown from 5,000 to 14,000, she said. Scientologists wanted to help at ground zero, and many did.

"That's what brought it together," Hight said. "We have volunteer ministers. We're soon to have 6,000 more and we can do something about any situation in life."

Mental health leaders say the campaign looks like a recruitment technique that could mislead emotionally vulnerable people.

"We are concerned Scientology may be playing on people's vulnerability to increase their membership," said Cynthia Folcarelli, executive vice president of the National Mental Health Association, the country's oldest and largest nonprofit mental health research and advocacy organization.

"The (billboard) message clearly conveys the idea, "We understand you're in emotional stress and we can help,' " Folcarelli said. "We have seen the Scientologists present themselves in other settings as mental health counselors when in fact they're not qualified to provide those services."

The National Mental Health Association criticized Scientology soon after the Sept. 11 attacks when the church promoted a hotline number under the heading "National Mental Health Assistance." The hotline scrolled across the bottom of the screen on Fox News, but made no mention of Scientology. The cable news channel yanked it after being told of its Scientology connection.

The Church of Scientology is opposed to psychiatry and psychology. Church founder L. Ron Hubbard believed Scientology's applied religious philosophy offered a better way to deal with life's pains and make people happier.

Volunteer ministers study a 19-chapter text called The Scientology Handbook that provides lessons such as improving communication skills, resolving conflicts, getting people off drugs, handling confusion in the workplace and improving domestic relations.

The ministers also learn how to conduct "assists," procedures Scientologists believe help people overcome physical or emotional difficulty.

It takes about 40 hours to complete all the chapters, although some volunteers study only select ones, said Sarah Gorgone, who coordinates about 200 volunteer ministers in the Clearwater area.

"They have the tools to be able to help people," Gorgone said. "If you have a friend that's on drugs and you're like, "I don't know what to do,' you feel helpless. If you have a tool to help your friend get off drugs, you feel better."

But Folcarelli said mental health professionals spend years studying and are licensed.

"Mental health training is not a do-it-yourself proposition," she said. "They (Scientologists) not only aren't trained to provide counseling, they reject what years of science and research have taught us about appropriate mental health intervention."

Church leaders aren't surprised to hear criticism from "an industry that doesn't really have the technology to help people, that has false and misleading ideas about what constitutes the human mind and spirit," Hight said.

Volunteer ministers do not proselytize, nor is the campaign about recruitment, she said.

"It's Scientologists who have solutions to problems who are willing to go out of their way to share that with other people," Hight said.

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