Florida mental health advocates go on offensive to protect patient rights

Sun-Sentinel/July 10, 2005
By Mark Hollis

Tallahassee -- Advocates for the mentally ill in Florida are finding it hard to keep quiet.

Actor Tom Cruise, a fervent disciple of the Church of Scientology, caught recent national attention for railing against psychiatry and antidepressants.

Mental health advocates say they might ordinarily dismiss the outbursts of the War of the Worlds star as ravings of an eccentric celebrity.

Not this time, they say, because his views -- or at least sentiments much like them -- found unexpectedly strong support in this year's Florida legislative process.

State legislators alarmed mental health advocates nationwide this spring by approving bills backed by an offshoot of the Church of Scientology that aimed to discourage public school students from seeking mental health services.

The legislation, which Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed, surfaced as patient advocates were distracted by another legislative battle -- a separate state move to cut costs in the Medicaid budget by restricting access to certain name brand drugs used to treat mental illnesses.

"It's spooky to see the mentally ill being attacked on so many sides right now," said Kathleen Hale, president of the South Florida Mental Health Association. "It really comes off as bullying. It's unfair and it's cruel. These (mentally ill) people are vulnerable and it's easy to pick on them."

Cruise hasn't backtracked. He scolded actress Brooke Shields for taking prescribed medication to treat her postpartum depression and lectured Matt Lauer, host of the Today show, that psychiatry was a "pseudoscience" and that antidepressant drugs were worthless because there is "no such thing as a chemical imbalance."

Hale and other mental health advocates say they fear Cruise's remarks may revive interest for next session in bills backed by Scientologists that advanced in the 2005 Florida Legislature.

They also say the church's teachings on psychiatry fly in the face of a century of documented scientific evidence, and can be dangerous to people who may need treatment.

"The more we stigmatize mental health issues and illnesses, the harder it is we make it for people who are suffering to seek out treatment," said Donna Sicilian, a social services supervisor for the Pinellas County School District who serves as president of the Florida Association of School Social Workers. "Anything, including speeches by Hollywood stars, that interferes with people getting the treatment they need is a concern."

Bob Sharpe, president of the Florida Council for Behavioral Health, representing 70 groups statewide, also said that this year's legislation sought by Scientologists and the attacks by Cruise "radically undercut" years-long efforts to boost spending on treatment of psychological disorders.

The Church of Scientology today holds tax-exempt status, preventing it from doing any major political lobbying. Yet it remains active in politics and the public arena through associated groups. In 1969, Scientologists founded the Citizens Commission on Human Rights designed to carry out the church's mission on mental health topics.

This spring, the commission 's Clearwater-based Florida chapter mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to keep children from receiving psychiatric care. Actresses Kelly Preston and Kirstie Alley, both Scientologists, testified on behalf of their church in support of the measures.

The commission backed bills sponsored by Rep. Gustavo Barreiro of Miami Beach and Sen. Victor Crist of Tampa. Both are Republicans and neither is a member of the Church of Scientology. Crist is a Presbyterian and Barreiro is Catholic. Both, though, have been supportive of the church, with Barreiro giving the church an award for volunteer work after last year's hurricanes.

Barreiro's bill, which eventually passed the House and Senate, stipulated that teachers or other school personnel would not "initiate" a diagnosis related to any psychiatric disorder. Critics, including the governor, said it would have chilled teachers from even suggesting that a child might be in need of medical or psychiatric attention.

The legislation was opposed by several mental health organizations, along with the Florida Medical Association, the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Psychological Association and even several top state officials and aides to the governor.

Barreiro and Crist said they backed the bills not to support Scientology but because they are seeking ways of clamping down on overmedication of children.

Though mental health advocates applaud the governor's veto, they say the debate over the legislation still brought Scientologists, or at least the commission, never-before-seen political success. They say that an arm of the church, once so controversial that politicians avoided being associated with it, could advance legislation to further one of its main tenets -- the opposition of psychiatry -- speaks to the success of the church's efforts to sharpen its public image.

David Figueroa, president of the commission's Florida chapter, said it's disappointing that the bills didn't become law. He said Bush was probably persuaded to reject the legislation because of influence from psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry.

"It's obvious that he (Bush) has advisers down the hall from him who have some sort of obvious vested interest in that psychiatric model," said Figueroa. "I can guarantee you it wasn't a nutritionist that was giving him that advice (to veto) or a tutor or a naturopath."

Still, Figueroa insisted that Scientologists have several reasons to celebrate political successes in Florida. He noted, for instance, that legislators eventually adopted at least a watered down amendment sought by the commission that was tacked onto a law that took effect July 1.

The law prohibits schools from forcing children to take psychotropic drugs as a condition of going to school. The law allows teachers and school personnel to share observations with the parents about a student's behavior and to suggest outside help. "However," the law reads, "a public school teacher and school district personnel may not compel or attempt to compel any specific actions by the parent or require that a student take medication."

While Figueroa described the changes as a success for the commission, the rules are already locked into federal law.

"We saw that as something we could live with," said Sharpe, the mental health advocate. "It largely tracks federal law and not something anyone really disagrees with."

But Figueroa said putting that language into state law is important in case the federal law is challenged, and also so that it can apply to any publicly funded school that, for any reason, chooses not to accept federal aid.

The law also was amended to allow a parent to refuse psychological screenings of the student.

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