Videos accusing psychiatrists and the drug industry of inventing diseases and defrauding the public are the centerpiece of a modest storefront museum that quietly opened this summer in downtown Clearwater.
They suggest that many drugs prescribed for anxiety, depression and other mental-health conditions are responsible for mass shootings and other violence.
The museum, “Psychiatry: Industry of Death,” occupies most of the first floor of the new headquarters for the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, dedicated in July. The non-profit group is affiliated with the Church of Scientology, which has long been at odds with the field of psychiatry.
And both in words and tone, the videos portray mental-health practitioners and drugs as dangerous to patients and costly to society.
An introductory video intones over a dramatic soundtrack: “Think psychiatry has nothing to do with you? Think again,” it says. “The whole field of psychiatry has gotten into every facet of your life.”
The museum consists of a series of cubicles bathed in soft lighting, with large-screen TVs that show what sponsors call “mini-documentaries” on topics such as alleged over-drugging of soldiers, children and the elderly.
Some cover the early history of psychiatry, which Scientology considers “brutal pseudoscience.” The use of leeches, lobotomies and asylums gradually gave way to a multibillion-dollar drug industry that may seem more civilized but is just as abusive, according to the exhibits.
The museum is modeled after one of the same name at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights. A CCHR press release says that nearly 200,000 visitors have toured the original.
On the videos at the Clearwater museum, people talk about being hurt by the mental-health system – labeled with a mental illness, drugged into a stupor, or held against their will in institutions.
Some professionals interviewed on screen also offer strong denunciation of mainstream psychiatrists.
“They basically believe that everyone is mentally ill,” said American University psychology professor Jeffrey Schaler.
Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, co-founder of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and author of “The Myth of Mental Illness,” died in 2012. But his image lives on in the museum, chiding colleagues for turning every human failing into a treatment opportunity.
“You smoke too much, it’s a disease,” Szasz says on-screen. “You’re too unhappy it’s a disease. You’re too thin, it’s a disease. You’re too fat, it’s a disease.”
The condemnations pile on, challenging the reliability of psychiatric diagnosis and claiming that nothing about psychiatry is legitimate and “they’re billing for it.”
“There is not one shred of evidence that any respectable scientist would consider valid demonstrating that anything that psychiatrists call mental illness are brain diseases or biochemical imbalances," said Dr. Ron Leifer, a psychiatrist in Ithica, New York and a protégé of Szasz. “It’s all fraud.”
Health News Florida asked several national mental-health organizations to review the videos and offer opinions on whether they were accurate, but all declined. Scientology has a reputation for issuing legal threats to those who criticize its work.
One researcher willing to talk about the materials is Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who studies new religions. With a co-author, he wrote an extensive review of Scientology’s battle against psychiatry that appeared in November 2012 in PubMed and was updated in January 2014.
Kent says that the late L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology after writing the book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,” hoped that Dianetics would replace psychiatry. That didn’t happen.
“It just evoked scorn,” Kent said. “By 1969, Hubbard had become so frustrated he went to war against the mental health professions.”
Kent said CCHR’s materials on psychiatry make some valid points about early mistakes in psychiatric treatment and about today’s pop-a-pill culture. But the group fails to give appropriate credit for recent advances in diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illness.
“You’ll never see, never, a single word of praise for psychiatry in CCHR,” Kent said.
The drug industry comes in for equal criticism; in fact, several videos at the Clearwater museum suggest prescription drugs for anxiety, depression and other ills may be to blame for mass murders.
While the viewer sees footage and hears sound from scenes of indiscriminate slaughter, the screen flashes with the name of the shooter and the drugs he was prescribed.
Viewers may surmise that the drugs were the cause of the violent behavior. But Kent, the Canadian researcher, said that conclusion is unwarranted.
It could be that the drugs were prescribed but never taken, he said, or the patient may have taken the drugs but stopped abruptly rather than tapering, causing him to spiral out of control.
Kent added another possibility: Severely depressed people who lacked the energy to act on violent urges got their energy back when placed on medication but did not gain other benefits.
“The issue of psychiatric drugs causing violence is important and complicated,” Kent said. “The mere fact that a person (who commits violent acts) had been treated by a psychiatrist doesn’t mean the treatment was a factor in the violence.”
While negative side effects to drugs are a concern, Kent said, “It’s certainly not the case that psychiatric drugs cause people to become mass killers.”
CCHR’s Florida director Diane Stein said a lot of people have come by to see the Clearwater museum and that she hopes to arrange tours by civic and school groups. No one visited the museum during the weekday afternoon a Health News Florida reporter was there.
Stein said the museum is just one facet of CCHR’s activities.
Another is lobbying for public-policy issues on mental health in the Legislature. Still another is offering a hotline to advise callers of their rights on involuntary treatment, she said.
Also, CCHR investigates accusations of human rights abuses, Stein said. She cited several cases in which state disciplinary actions were brought against psychiatrists because of CCHR’s work.
Wayne Hilton of Tampa doesn't agree with the group's message at the museum because of what happened to his son. The boy began hearing voices at the age of 15; he developed fears that Nazis were taking over the world.
“He was trapped in his delusions, he couldn’t get out,” Hilton said.
Hilton sought help for his son at the Hillsborough Mental Health Crisis Center, where the boy was given medication for anxiety, Hilton said.
Later, at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, the teenager got a thorough work-up, diagnosis of early-onset schizophrenia, and drugs appropriate for that diagnosis. He’s been stable for 2 ½ years, Hilton said.
So it makes him sad to see CCHR call psychiatry an “industry of death.”
“They saved my son’s life,” Hilton said. “I guarantee you if we had not gotten my son to the right hospital, to the right psychiatrist, to the right medication, he would not be alive today. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
CCHR’s Stein said that she thinks her group and those who see value in current mental-health treatment and drugs can find common ground. All disagree with putting sick people in jail, and want to see them get help.
“We’re not opposed to treatment, we’re opposed to what is considered treatment,” she said, offering as examples electroshock therapy, drugs with side effects that can be dangerous, and the increasing incidence of prescribing psychoactive drugs to children and the elderly just to keep them quiet.
As Stein put it, “Why are we tolerating the drugging of our society?”