A group affiliated with the Church of Scientology has forged close ties with several influential members of the Arizona Legislature as part of a nationwide battle against the mental-health industry.
The Citizens Commission on Human Rights has courted key lawmakers with trips to glitzy Scientologist events in Hollywood. And, observers say, it has been the force behind more than two dozen bills in Arizona in recent years, including measures to restrict prescriptions of Ritalin and mood-altering drugs.
One of the measures pushed by the group is likely to be approved by the state Senate on Monday.
Senate Bill 1477, the psychotropic-drug bill that received preliminary approval this week, would add more state oversight of clinical trials involving tranquilizers and other drugs that affect the mind at state-funded institutions. Supporters say they do not believe people are always informed of the possible side effects of drugs like Prozac and Ritalin.
Opponents counter that the bill is unnecessary because of strict federal oversight of research programs and warn that it is part of a larger campaign by the religious sect to discredit the field of psychiatry.
"They don't believe there is such a thing as mental illness," said Sen. Robert Cannell, the Legislature's only medical doctor. "They have such an influence on the Legislature it is scary."
State lobbying records show that the commission has spent thousands of dollars on Hollywood trips for Arizona lawmakers. Over the past two years, legislators have attended celebrity-studded award ceremonies, an anniversary gala at the Celebrity Center church and the grand opening of the commission's museum, Psychiatry: An Industry of Death. Legislators met John Travolta and other high-profile guests and learned more about the church's campaigns and programs.
In materials distributed to state lawmakers, the group lays out what it believes are the horrors of modern society, from violent crimes and broken families to illiteracy and child suicides. And it offers a simple explanation: psychiatry.
Supporters say the commission is raising important concerns about the effects of psychiatric drugs, especially the widespread use of mood-altering prescriptions among children.
An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month recommended stronger warnings about potential side effects of Ritalin and other stimulants after hearing about the deaths of 25 people, including 19 children, who had taken the drugs. The commission has sounded similar warnings for years about the prescriptions taken by millions of American adults and children.
Richard Haworth, a lobbyist for the commission locally, said concerns about its involvement at the Legislature are an attempt to "kill the messenger" instead of addressing problems caused by the failures of the mental-health industry. And, the Sun City real estate agent adds, trips to Hollywood worth a few hundred dollars do little to counter the influence of wealthy pharmaceutical companies.
The Citizens Commission on Human Rights was formed by the church in 1969 to investigate human rights abuses by psychiatrists and retains close ties to the church. The commission's two local lobbyists, Haworth and Les Koel, a Phoenix entertainer, said psychiatric patients are too often disregarded by society, exposed to torturous and coercive treatments. Their group has fought for humane practices, against involuntary-confinement laws and for improved informed-consent requirements in their work around the world, they said.
And although people may regard some of the group's beliefs as extreme, Haworth said, no one else has offered an explanation for escalating school violence, which his group contends is a result of mental-health programs in schools and overmedication of children.
"You can call it all coincidence if you want to," Haworth said. But the commission wants legislators to think carefully about the programs they are funding and ask questions about "whose pocket this is going to line."
Koel said that he believes the mental-health industry is not being truthful about the safety of psychiatric drugs, particularly among children, and that's why his group serves an important role in getting the information out.
"The truth is there have been reports of suicides, violence and addiction," he said.
But prominent local psychiatrists, mental-health advocates and some legislators say citizens should be alarmed by the influence of the group on state mental-health policy. Although the latest version of the psychotropic-drug bill is considered relatively benign, Dr. Eric Benjamin, head of psychiatry at Phoenix Children's Hospital, fears it could serve as a foothold to discredit the field of psychiatry. He said the commission uses "fear and misunderstanding" to win over supporters in a vendetta against his profession that could deter people from getting the help they need.
"Their ideology is very clear and very insensitive to the 20 percent of children in the population who have mental illnesses and the huge number of adults who struggle with mental illness throughout their lives," he said.
Cannell, D-Yuma, told The Republic that he has grown increasingly frustrated by some of his colleagues' acceptance of beliefs not backed by the mainstream medical community. On the Senate floor this week, he implored his colleagues not to vote for the measure that he said was based on misinformation propagated by a group "with spokesmen that are movie actors, not scientists."
The Church of Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, a late science-fiction writer who published the self-help book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950. He lectured about the new religion he called Scientology while living in Phoenix in the 1950s, delivering hundreds of lectures here, according to the local church.
According to church creed, mental-health issues should not be addressed outside a religious setting. In fact, the central practice of Scientology involves counseling sessions called "auditing" in which participants examine their existence and rid themselves of unwanted spiritual conditions to improve their lives. It is a process than can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
When church members rise to higher ranks in the church, they learn a truth that they believe is a cause of human suffering. Though kept secret by the church, the revelation has now been widely published after court documents were made public by the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s. It involves a galactic ruler named Xenu that banished the souls of his enemies to Earth 75 million years ago.
Some speculate that Hubbard's intense dislike for psychiatrists was spawned by the profession's rejection of his mental-health practices.
When legislators talk about their support for the commission's views, they often refer to personal stories about friends or family members who have had negative experiences with medication. Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, talks about a friend's child who, she says, developed Tourette's syndrome after taking Ritalin.
"I think they (members of the commission) are right, predominantly, when it comes to psychotropic drugs," said Gray, who has taken two Hollywood trips paid for by the commission. She is the primary sponsor of the psychotropic bill, which she said was "pretty much" drafted by the group.
Sen. Carolyn Allen, chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee, says that "you don't have to buy into their religious philosophy" to agree with the philosophy on medications. She talks about a nephew who she thinks was drugged too much.
Similar emotional testimony has been shared at legislative hearings. Another bill introduced this year would have required written consent from parents for any mental-health screenings in schools. The bill was similar to other measures passed in previous years and vetoed by the governor. Sponsored by Sen. Karen Johnson, a member of the commission's international advisory group, the bill had a bipartisan group of 36 co-sponsors. Still, it failed by a tie vote in the Education Committee, in part because of testimony of mental-health advocates.
The original text of the bill would have required parents to sign a lengthy consent form that contained paragraph after paragraph of negative information about psychiatric practices.
Sherri Walton, a volunteer lobbyist for the Mental Health Association of Arizona, said that bill and others that the commission has helped draft contained bad science, inflammatory language and thinly veiled church teachings.
"People are entitled to their opinions, and there are a lot of people who don't believe mental illness exists," Walton told Education Committee members last month. "The supporters of these bills over the years - they don't believe mental illness exists, and that's fine - but you don't legislate opinion, you don't put opinion into law. And I've got to tell you it is extremely insulting to people who are living with mental illnesses."