Hijacking of debate over Ritalin is feared

The Gazette, Canada/June 8, 2006
By Allison Lampert

New controversy surrounds efforts to launch Quebec's first class action over the attention deficit disorder drug Ritalin.

The lawsuit has already sparked debate on whether cash-strapped Quebec schools are bullying parents into giving prescription drugs to their children.

Now, the close involvement of Scientologists is raising concerns among advocates for the learning disabled, who fear a legitimate debate over Ritalin could be hijacked by the faith's anti-drug agenda.

Some question why the same activist who insists on parents being fully informed about the risks of prescription drugs rarely discusses his own beliefs in a faith that blasts psychiatry and the use of psychotropic medication like Ritalin.

But the president of the National Parents Association said his fight to make sure parents - and not schools - control the medicine cabinet has nothing to do with his religious beliefs.

"I am very proud of the fact that I'm a Scientologist, but this is not a Scientology issue," NPA president George Mentis said. "It's a question of informed consent."

The petition for the class action follows a Longueuil mother's claims that her son was suspended from his Grade 7 class last winter after she stopped giving him Ritalin and Risperdal.

Ritalin is a stimulant that helps kids with attention deficit disorder focus better, while Risperdal is an anti-psychotic drug.

Danielle Lavigueur said her son Gabriel, 12, was required to take the drugs as part of his individualized education plan at Ecole secondaire St. Jean Baptiste in Longueuil.

Schools design education plans to spell out the needs of at-risk and disabled students so their progress can be followed more easily.

The drugs were first prescribed to treat Gabriel's diagnosed anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

But it had harsh side effects. Over the years, Lavigueur said, her son had difficulty sleeping and was losing weight.

In March, after Gabriel was suspended repeatedly from school, a friend introduced Lavigueur to Raphael Huppe and George Mentis, two Scientologists who run the NPA.

The non-profit volunteer group has already heard from 50 parents who claim they were pressured by schools to give their kids prescription drugs, Mentis said.

Gabriel has been out of school since March, and the NPA is spearheading Lavigueur's $11-million lawsuit.

As association president, Mentis, 46, is becoming known as a parents' rights advocate; he was invited to speak in Prince Edward Island last month about concerns over illicit drug use.

What Mentis rarely discusses, however, is his long-term involvement in Scientology. He's written articles for Freedom, a Scientology publication.

From 1993 to 2001, he headed the Toronto-based Canadian chapter of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group founded by the Church of Scientology in 1969.

In the 1980s, the U.S.-based Citizens group backed a $150-million lawsuit on behalf of a mother who said her Georgia school board had ordered her to give her son Ritalin, according to the TV news program PBS Frontline.

Mentis said he wasn't aware of the U.S. suit, which was dismissed in 1988.

Mentis has told Lavigueur about his beliefs, but he said he doesn't usually discuss them because he believes they're irrelevant.

The lawsuit, he said, is about parental choice to give kids drugs - not about the drugs themselves.

"We're not talking about psychiatry here; we're talking about the rights of parents."

Jean Lariviere, spokesperson for the Church of Scientology of Montreal, agreed that Mentis's religious beliefs have nothing to do with the NPA.

"I don't see why Mentis has the obligation to identify himself as a member of the Church of Scientology," Lariviere said in an email. "I am concerned that such a notion reeks of discrimination because it appears to require (Scientologists) to be more transparent than people of other beliefs or religions."

Yet some observers argue Scientology cannot be compared with other religions because criticism of psychiatry and the use of psychotropic drugs is an integral part of the faith.

"How can (Scientologists) be neutral if their beliefs are anti-medication?" asked Linda Aber, a family life educator at the Learning Disabilities Association of Quebec's Montreal chapter.

"They don't believe in ADD (attention deficit disorder)."

Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, said he believes the Scientologists' fight over informed consent is a way to discredit the use of drugs like Ritalin.

"Scientology's goal is to eradicate psychiatry," said Kent, who has studied Scientologists for 20 years. "Historically, one of the many vehicles Scientologists have used to reach that goal is through psychiatry's use of a variety of pharmaceuticals."

In 2005, actor Tom Cruise, a Scientologist, made headlines when he lambasted psychiatry as a "pseudo-science" and dismissed Ritalin as a "street drug" in a TV interview.

On an Internet message forum, Mentis defended Cruise's claims against a rebuttal by the American Psychiatric Association, which he dismissed as a public relations move: "In the end, no amount of PR will save psychiatry or the APA from their inevitable demise."

Scientologists have suggested that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a fake disorder set up as marketing gimmick by psychiatrists to promote the sale of drugs like Ritalin.

As for Lavigueur, she said she doesn't mind that Mentis practises Scientology, a faith she admits she knows little about.

"They're helping me a lot. I really don't care whether they are Catholic or Scientologist," the single mother of two said.

"I'm a Catholic and I don't like Ritalin."

The drug, whose scientific name is methylphenidate, has come under fire for being overprescribed by general practitioners who don't always have the time or skill to properly diagnose attention deficit disorder.

A 1998 regional health board study of Laval elementary school pupils showed 12 per cent of kids from families on social assistance were taking Ritalin, compared with 4.5 per cent of the general school population.

In late May, Health Canada announced that drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder will now be labelled because of their risk to patients with high blood pressure or heart disease.

Between 2000 and 2005, the number of stimulant pills sold per child has more than doubled in Quebec, according to figures by IMS Health Canada, which tracks prescription trends.

Four advocates for the learning disabled contacted by The Gazette said parents had told them they'd been pressured by teachers to get their kids tested for attention deficit disorder.

None, however, could recall any case of a child being suspended from school for refusing to take a drug like Ritalin.

The petition, which is to be heard in Quebec Court in Longueuil on Sept. 20, identifies three Montreal-area school boards that are alleged to have pressured parents to give their kids prescription drugs: Marie-Victorin and Riverside on the South Shore and Marguerite Bourgeoys in the West Island.

Riverside wouldn't comment on the case, while a spokesperson for Bourgeoys couldn't be reached for comment.

Marie-Victorin secretary-general Francois Houde said he told Lavigueur at a March 31 meeting that the board was willing to remove the medication from Gabriel's education plan.

"It's not us who are stopping Gabriel Lavigueur from returning to school," Houde said. "This is the parent's choice to keep the boy at home."

The lawsuit was filed after the meeting, Houde added.

Danielle Lavigueur said that her son has been much happier since she's kept him home. He eats and sleeps well and is no longer coming home in tears after being repeatedly suspended.

Mentis helped her cause by putting her in touch with lawyer Alan Stein, who's handling the case pro bono. The NPA receives no funding from the Church of Scientology, Mentis said.

"We're essentially funding ourselves."

Mentis, who works in marketing, said he decided to start the association last year after a friend from Rosemere told him that he'd been pressured to put his child on Ritalin.

He questioned why the credibility of groups for the learning disabled is never debated, even if some receive money from drug companies that are making millions from the sale of Ritalin.

Micheline Claveau, Montreal chapter vice-president of Parents aptes a negocier le deficit de l'attention, said its parents' support group receives no money from drug companies.

However, she agrees there are teachers - with large classes and few resources - who pressure parents to seek medical or psychological help for kids who might simply be acting out.

But Claveau and attention deficit disorder advocate Aber agreed they'd never heard of a case where a child was forced to take prescription drugs.

"We've heard cases of people saying, 'The school wants us to (put the child on Ritalin).' But when we called (on the parents' behalf), they only want the kids to be assessed," Aber said.

"Nobody wants a child on medication. If we could all just take a vitamin and make the problem go away, it would be wonderful."

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