Bill would curtail prescriptions for mentally ill children

Proposal pushed by church group

Boston Globe/March 4, 2004
By Benjamin Gedan

The Church of Scientology's national campaign to attack the field of psychiatry has come to Beacon Hill, where several senators are sponsoring legislation to curtail the prescription of medication to mentally ill children.

The bill, sponsored by Senators Richard T. Moore and Charles E. Shannon, would require doctors to provide parents with information from the "Physician's Desk Reference Family Guide to Prescription Drugs" related to a medication's possible side effects. Doctors would need a parent or guardian's signature before prescribing Ritalin, Prozac, and other widely used psychotropic medicines.

In an interview, Moore defended the bill, but he said he was unaware of the involvement of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group formed by the Church of Scientology in 1969. A group leader, Kevin Hall, helped craft the legislation.

"Giving someone a pill is not always the simple answer," Moore said. "The drugs mask the real problem."

The bill has attracted nearly unanimous scorn from the medical establishment. Referring to the legislation as the "Scientology Bill," opponents say the requirement would limit so-called informed consent, as doctors rely on an official information sheet instead of lengthy dialogue.

Critics of the bill say the requirement could delay treatment and discriminate against mentally ill patients. Doctors now convey details about prescription drugs, they say.

"This makes absolutely no sense," said Dr. Sean Palfrey, president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "There are risks to everything."

The bill has cleared the Senate's Health Care Committee, and its supporters predict it could pass the full Senate this month.

Hall, New England director for the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, said he wrote the bill last year. The Church of Scientology is known for its vocal opposition to medical treatment for mental illness, which Hall said is often improperly diagnosed, if it exists at all.

Hall, 46, of Quincy, said that symptoms of mental illness, like hyperactivity in attention deficit disorder, could be traced to a sugary breakfast or an undiagnosed physical ailment. He criticized antidepressants and stimulants, saying they cause heart problems, increased suicide risk, and stunted growth.

"The symptoms exist, but usually there's a medical cause underneath or an allergy," he said. "The disorders that children are labeled are symptoms, not illnesses."

The Church of Scientology referred questions to the Los Angeles-based Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which is circulating a petition against what it calls drug abuse and lobbying for similar bills in other states. In New Hampshire, Hall said his activism led to a state task force to address the issue.

"They've pathologized childhood," said Marla Filidei, vice president of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights. "Everything now is considered a disorder."

Shannon, Democrat of Winchester, worked with the antipsychiatry group on the legislation. But his chief of staff, Sean Fitzgerald, distanced the senator from the Church of Scientology. "This legislation has nothing to do with religion," he said.

"This legislation is an extra layer of protection against any possible harmful side effects caused by psychotropic drugs," he said. "It gives parents an extra safeguard."

The state Department of Mental Health is fighting the bill. Its chief of staff, Lester Blumberg, said psychiatrists could not agree on a uniform fact sheet to distribute to parents. A compromise was under consideration after the bill was postponed a third time yesterday, he said. It is scheduled for a vote in two weeks.

"It's not a good idea," Blumberg said. "Reducing informed consent to a form will hinder and impede the delivery of information."

Others criticized the bill for not requiring non-English translations of the medical literature, lacking provisions for children in state custody, and increasing doctors' liability. The "Physician's Desk Reference," they say, is outdated.

James M. Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, a nonprofit group, said the bill would interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.

He also criticized Hall for exaggerating the side effects of popular treatments. "There is a massive body of scientific evidence that shows that these disorders have a medical basis and respond to medical treatment," Ellison said.

Informed consent, is already required, he added. "This just adds a layer of specification. There are many sources that many of us use."

Moore disagreed, saying that many doctors do not discuss side effects with patients and parents, and that some may not understand the impact. "The parents are not always fully informed," he said. "Some of those drugs have been linked to suicide."

Palfrey, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the Church of Scientology is "not educated in the current science of therapeutics" and added that his group was meeting with senators to oppose the bill.

So is the Parent/Professional Advocacy League, a Boston-based group for families with mentally ill children.

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