Editorial Note: In this post, Jason Renaud raises an important concern about an omission in Jonathan Keyes’ post, “The End of Rethinking Psychiatry?” The issue raised is an important one, that has long needed and deserved a full discussion on these pages. We therefore gratefully offer here Jason’s critique of Jonathan’s post, as well as Jonathan’s response, in the hope of hosting a full and fair discussion of the issue.
Response to “The End of Rethinking Psychiatry?”
In his Mad in America blog post “The End of Rethinking Psychiatry?” Jonathan Keyes writes about the support group Rethinking Psychiatry and how Portland’s First Unitarian Church has withdrawn its assistance and asked the group to leave the church.
Jon wasn’t told the full story by his colleagues at Rethinking Psychiatry, and he didn’t ask the church about it. Turns out First Unitarian wasn’t the first organization to cease support for Rethinking Psychiatry; my organization did as well – and here’s some background about our decision.
The Mental Health Association of Portland is Oregon’s advocacy leader for people with mental illness and addictions. Our work over the last decade has influenced law and public policy, applied direct pressure to government leaders, used the arts to reject authority, and sat bedside with the sick, the mad, and the dying. We maintain no staff, no office, no income, no assets, no allies.
Leadership means we promote excellence and denounce fraud. Rethinking Psychiatry is both, but a little fraud trumps a lot of excellence every time.
Inspired by Robert Whitaker’s visits to Portland (including at least one we helped sponsor), Rethinking Psychiatry was started in 2010 with the mission of delving into alternatives to conventional care for people with mental illness. The group was hosted by the First Unitarian Church of Portland, a large, established and liberal congregation which for many years had a mental health social justice committee and is keenly interested in our issues.
Almost from its launch, Rethinking Psychiatry promoted Scientology, including displaying its materials at events; placing Scientologists on their planning committee; hosting Scientologists as speakers; and showing films produced by Scientology and its propaganda outlet, the so-called Citizens Commission on Human Rights. Rethinking Psychiatry did present materials and views from many other organizations and individuals – most laudable – but always in association with Scientology materials.
Rethinking Psychiatry is not an “organization” in a legal sense; it’s not a nonprofit, and its planning committee members don’t have legal duties. Its everyday leader is Marsha Meyer, who has toiled thousands of hours to pull all the parts of Rethinking Psychiatry together.
When you visit the Rethinking Psychiatry website, you’ll see many names and ideas in common with Mad in America and other forefront mental illness questioning groups. Much of the work of Rethinking Psychiatry was interesting and worthwhile, but promoting Scientology as an equal voice was insulting and dangerous.
I’m not going to explain why Scientology is an active danger to people with mental illness in this post. It’s too tedious a story to tell, and I’m not certain Mad in America has sufficient legal representation to defend my opinions – and those of dozens of notable journalists and legal investigators from all over the world who wrote about Scientology and became subjects of their harassment, lawsuits, surveillance and dirty tricks.
Early on, Marsha approached the Mental Health Association of Portland for support in promoting events from Rethinking Psychiatry. We declined, specifically citing Rethinking Psychiatry’s support of Scientology. Marsha rebuffed our concerns, saying Scientology has a legitimate voice questioning psychiatry. Other members of Rethinking Psychiatry asked for support from Mental Health Association of Portland. Some of our supporters asked Mental Health Association of Portland to support Rethinking Psychiatry. We declined – exclusively because of Rethinking Psychiatry’s support of Scientology.
We disagree with Marsha and with Rethinking Psychiatry’s planning committee: Scientology is not a legitimate voice questioning psychiatry. Rethinking Psychiatry let a fox in our chicken house.
Beyond their website, we noticed Rethinking Psychiatry’s persistent endorsement of Scientology at First Unitarian. Both ministers of the congregation are personal friends of mine. In 2012, I wrote to apprise them of Scientology’s infiltration of their church using Rethinking Psychiatry as a front. The ministry began a dialogue with Marsha, first about not promoting Scientology in their church, and then when that didn’t stop, about Rethinking Psychiatry leaving First Unitarian.
If you’re a congregant of First Unitarian in Portland, and have questions about its decision or want further explanation, contact the ministry directly.
If you have questions about Scientology, I suggest you read “FBI’s Scientology Investigation: Balancing the First Amendment with charges of abuse and forced labor,” from the Tampa Bay Times, or Joe Sappell’s series in LA Magazine, based on his five-year investigation of Scientology.
If you have questions about the Mental Health Association of Portland, I’ll answer them in the thread below.
Response by Jonathan Keyes:
I want to start by thanking Jason for joining the conversation here at Mad in America and I also want to direct people to his fine organization Mental Health Association of Portland. MHAP is a leading voice in trying to advocate for the rights of folks labeled with a mental illness.
As to the issue of the Church separating ties to Rethinking Psychiatry, there were a number of issues as to why the Church and RTP parted ways, only one of which involved Scientology. From what I was told, the main reason was indeed due to strong concerns of members of the congregation about the message of critiquing psychiatry brought forth by Rethinking Psychiatry, and not primarily about a Scientology connection.
I want to take this moment to separate out some issues here. First of all, I deeply appreciate the work of the ministers at the Portland Unitarian Congregation. They work tirelessly to fight for social justice and to lead and support a congregation that is dedicated to improving human rights. I support them entirely in their work. My only hope is that they include more voices dedicated to examining injustice in the mental health arena; if not with Rethinking Psychiatry, then with another affiliate group. As someone who works as a therapist and has spent considerable time working with people in crisis states, I have seen first hand the damage that is being caused by our modern mental health system. That needs to be critically examined, and I believe the Unitarian Church should be one of the foremost supporters of reforming modern mental health treatment.
As to the issue of Scientology, this is a tricky subject. As most people here know, Scientologists have long professed an aversion to psychiatry and have developed an organization, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, that is well funded and critically examines the modern mental health system. Because of Scientology’s problematic reputation that includes accusations of brainwashing and being a cult, many who seek to reform psychiatry have understandably wanted to distance themselves from this group. On a certain level, being tarnished with the brush of being allied with Scientology could be seen as enough to ruin the reputation of anyone seeking to reform psychiatry.
I get that, and because of that, I understand Jason’s strong concerns about Rethinking Psychiatry having any affiliation with Scientology. The thing is, that “affiliation” just doesn’t exist except on a very cursory level. I have to take strong exception to the idea that Jason perceives Rethinking as a “front” group that has somehow “infiltrated” the church. That simply is not true. They have accepted no money from the Church of Scientology. Though I have heard of one member once attending the CoS, all of the rest of the members have no affiliation with the CoS. They don’t engage in ongoing communication with the CoS and certainly take no directives from them. Again, the notion of RTP being a “front group” is simply not true.
The more important question is whether even a cursory connection to the CoS and the CCHR is acceptable in the form of rarely showing a video of theirs or connecting to some of their information online. I would have to say that certainly politically it is smarter to cut any ties, even cursory connections to the CoS, for fear of being tarnished. But does that mean not allowing someone to join who once attended the CoS? Does that mean a complete disavowal of everything Scientologists say, even when we agree? These are hard questions. I know even here at Mad In America, there are blog writers who have connections to CCHR. Does that discredit everything that is written at MIA? Does that discredit Robert Whitaker? I should hope not.
On a number of levels, I have been discussing how the language we use and the associations we keep can affect our ability to engage in effective dialogue with potential allies. Being seen as even cursorily connected to Scientology, let alone being perceived as a “front group,” can affect the standing of those involved in the movement to reform psychiatry. As many of us saw in the Today show interview of Tom Cruise, his disparagement of Brooke Shields taking psychiatric drugs while going through postpartum depression was seen as horribly insulting and offensive by millions. This sadly helped to give an air of “cultism” around anyone who criticized psychiatry.
So yes, if we want to gain more allies, not turn off potential friends and supporters, I personally believe we need to be careful with language and with our affiliations.
At the same time, I know there are others who feel that though we may strongly disagree with the CoS on most matters, they have been one of the strongest groups to fight for radical reform of the system and because of that it makes sense to ally with them. These are open-ended questions that should be debated.
But I do believe that it is deeply unfair to tarnish a passionate reform group such as Rethinking Psychiatry with the epithet of “Scientology front” group and thus damage their reputation and standing in the community. On their website, they have specifically written a disclaimer that can be viewed here. It states quite clearly that:
“We are a fully responsible and autonomous entity, independent of any other organization. As clearly stated on our web site: We accept no funding or control from, nor do we promote any religion, other organization, government entity, corporation, or drug company.
We greatly value our volunteers and their commitment to our values and to sharing the workload burden of a start-up organization. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion or any other group affiliation or identity. We are also fully compliant with the individual rights of freedom of association and assembly as provided for under the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It has come to our attention that concerns have been expressed, questioning at least our ‘perceived’ independence from other groups, specifically the Citizens Commission for Human Rights. We hope this letter is sufficient to put to rest any concerns you may have re such matters.”
I am glad Jason in part acknowledges and praises the really good work that Rethinking Psychiatry has done. Some of that work includes raising awareness of the problems associated with psychiatric drugs and their over-prescription as well as examining the limitations of hospitalization, coercion, a lack of informed consent and a lack of true holistic alternatives.
Rethinking Psychiatry has put together lectures and symposiums based on developing alternative models of care. Recently they have been working on a long-term care model for helping people who exit long-term hospitalization known as “Beyond Soteria.” They also helped put together a weekend symposium attended by hundreds of people to discuss alternative ways to manage emotional distress. This is very important work and these folks who volunteer their time towards these efforts should be applauded, not denigrated.
Ultimately, I think for most all of us, the goal is to accomplish lasting change, to improve the lives of those who are labeled with a “mental illness”; to provide better information, greater awareness of the issues surrounding informed consent, crisis treatment and psychiatric drugs as well as encouraging and creating non-medical holistic alternatives. I am sure those goals are shared by both the Mental Health Association of Portland as well as Rethinking Psychiatry. My hope is that instead of creating more divisiveness, we focus on how we can work together more effectively and develop cooperative strategies for creating effective change.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.