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Weird Scientology

New Haven Advocate (CT), September 22, 2005
By Steven Novella
*/Tom Cruise is bad for your mental health/*

Scientology spiritual home of Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman and a lot of Hollywood actors you've never heard of has gotten a lot of press for what some say is its cult-like devotion to secrecy, not to mention its hefty charges for counseling services. (See "Battlefield New Haven," Nov. 4, 2004, www.newhavenadvocate.com.) But it's not Scientology's recruiting strategies, nor its finances, that could cause the most harm; from the point of view of public nuisance, what's most worrying is Scientology's opposition to anti-depressants, and its general denial of chemical imbalances in the brain and organic mental illness. Take, for example, Tom Cruise's public spat with Brooke Shields last summer, as he derided her use of anti-depressants to cope with post-partum depression.

As laid out in Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's book, Dianetics, the real causes of everyone's mental distress are painful memories suppressed from childhood, even the womb. These traumatic memories create "engrams" on our brains. The only way to be mentally healthy is to be "cleared" of these traumatic memories, which can only be accomplished through scientology "auditing." (In the cult-jargon of scientology, the rest of us are PC, or pre-clear.) And auditing costs money.

But wait, there's more.

Talk about traumatic memories and engrams is just another covera superficial scientology "reality level."

Scientology's real dogma is that we are all suffering from the traumatic memories of aliens, called thetans, who were murdered on Earth millions of years ago by the evil overlord Xenu, who trapped them in a volcano and then blew them up with nuclear weapons (hence the volcano reference on the cover of /Dianetics /). So what we all need to be cleared of are parasitic alien ghosts haunting us with bad memories.

This quasi-religious, sci-fi belief system has been widely mocked for being silly (which of course it is); but it also puts Scientologists directly at odds with the mental health profession, in the exact same way that religious creationists are at odds with natural historians and evolutionary biologists. Scientologists are the creationists of mental health. This casts them in the role of deniersdenying a vast and growing body of scientific evidence in the field of behavioral neuroscience.

Tom Cruise has insisted, bluntly, "There is no biochemical imbalance." And, of course, that means all medication for mood or cognitive symptoms are out; taking lithium, in this view, is equated with taking recreational street drugs. As a cure for depression-like feelings, Cruise offers instead diet and exercise (at least at the first reality level, until you are told the whole thing about the distraught thetan spirits).

Interestingly, Scientologists aren't the only deniers of mental illness. Beginning in the 1960s, psychiatrist Thomas Szaszwho has been known to attend Scientology functionsbegan from the point of view of legitimate criticism of the practice of psychiatry or mental health, but he then went beyond all reason to the denial of the very existence of mental illness.

Such ideas were first formulated, however, before the revolution of neuroscience, which has enabled us, for example, to actually image the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain. We can now see the biochemical imbalance. Given what we now know, denial of mental illness denies the basic fact that the brain is an organ, just like the liver and kidneys, only vastly more complex.

This denial is particularly sad in an age that has seen rapid strides in the treatment of mental illness. Today, some people who 20 years ago would have been potential suicides are now treatable with one of dozens of new drugs. Those drugs don't work for everybody, and they don't make one's life perfect, but they can help keep depression from becoming crippling; they can allow people to lead relatively normal lives.

It is a shame that the Church of Scientology has chosen to target Hollywood stars for recruitment, then have them as spokespersons. But perhaps the Scientologists, like the Democratic Party, have overestimated the cache of entertainment celebrity. The more Cruise publicly rants against the mental health profession, the more the public seems to believe that he is in need of their services. I wonder if that is on his reality level.

/Steven Novella is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale and president of the New England Skeptical Society/