Jan 27, 2018

Suburban mall's anti-psychiatry exhibition linked to Scientology

January 27 2018

Anti-psychiatry brochures and a DVD given out at the mall exhibition run by the Citizens Commission for Human Rights.

The exhibition condemns psychiatry as the "industry of death" which "denies the most basic of human rights". On graphic, even potentially disturbing posterboards, it attacks electro-shock therapy and suggests naturopathy as one alternative for the mentally ill.

But visitors to the 'mental health exhibition', in a shop unit at the Highbury Mall in Birkenhead, Auckland, would need sharp eyes to realise that the displays hosted by an incorporated society called the Citizens Commission for Human Rights were backed by the Church of Scientology.

It's the second time in two years the CCHR has run such a pop-up exhibition in a suburban mall, having been asked to leave the Westfield centre in Manukau in 2017. And their presence at Highbury has led to complaints from locals and a promise from the mall's owner they will not rent to the organisation again.

For years, Scientologists have recruited by enticing passersby on busy shopping streets to complete stress tests or IQ tests. Could using a suburban shopfront be a more subtle recruitment drive? The church deny that is their intention.

Behind the reception desk of the exhibition on Friday morning was the long-time spokesman for the Church of Scientology in New Zealand, Mike Ferriss, who said: "This is another role I have on a part-time basis. I am quite passionate about CCHR."

Ferriss said five visitors to the exhibition had asked the CCHR, which describes itself as a "non-profit mental health watchdog", to help them pursue complaints of ill-treatment by mental health professionals.

Mike Ferriss, spokesman for Scientology in New Zealand, was behind the desk at the CCHR exhibition when our reporter visited. "This is another role I have on a part-time basis," he said.

Jonathan Coleman, the local MP, a qualified GP and former Minister of Health, condemned the exhibition. "I totally disagree with those views [espoused by the CCHR]. There is a strong scientific basis in psychiatry and those ideas are pretty dangerous.

"The thing with mental health, as opposed to other areas, is there is a lot of judgment involved. It is a subjective area. But those people involved have a lot of training and experience and the treatments, which span a whole range from talk therapy to medication, have a strong scientific basis built up over a long period of time.

"To say that psychiatry is wrong is dangerous and to say that you shouldn't see trained professionals if you are mentally ill is dangerous.

"If it is the Church of Scientology [involved in the exhibition], they should absolutely be upfront as to who they are and not try to mask their identity behind some other name. People have a view of Scientology and whatever that is, it is clear that they are not trained medical professionals and if people knew that, immediately it would give a signal to people that these are not trained professionals they are dealing with. They should be transparent and upfront and give a clear indication as to their intentions, and their level of expertise - because they have none."

Ferriss said Coleman's comments were "utter rubbish" and the psychiatric industry had endangered many more people than an exhibition could. CCHR executive director Steve Green said Coleman's comments were "very bad manners" and a "horrible thing to say when we're out there doing good," he added."What does he know of us to come up with that type of accusation?" 

Scientology is mentioned in one small sign at the start of the exhibition. Ferriss said scientology had set up CCHR and "that's about it really", although in a 2009 interview he told the Sunday Star-Times, when discussing the church's activities, "we run a wonderful human rights campaign in terms of psychiatric abuse."

The Citizens Commission for Human Rights exhibition sits in a shop unit at the Highbury Mall in Birkenhead on Auckland's North Shore.

The CCHR was founded in 1969 by the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles. The New Zealand arm followed in 1976, and has claimed credit for uncovering allegations of extensive abuse at the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital in Manawatū in the 1970s, for which the government paid out substantial compensation. The CCHR has petitioned the United Nations Committee on Torture on the Lake Alice affair.

Green, CCHR's executive director, is a practising scientologist. He described the CCHR as a "completely voluntary organisation" which provided its services for free to an under-represented minority. He said almost a thousand people had been through the exhibition and the majority had responded positively. Mental health "is a very important issue that should be in the news", he said.

"The exhibition is bringing awareness of what is going on, and we have had very good responses from it. Trying to highlight the one or two [visitors] opposed to Scientology is off-topic."

Green said the organisation was low-profile because they didn't promote themselves and were instead focused on the victims of abuse. "We are not necessarily interested in being in the newspaper or on TV, we are interested in helping the victims of psychiatric abuse and torture, which we do well."

Ferriss said the organisation's membership numbered a "few hundred", and included a nurse, a GP and a naturopath but no mental health professionals. The organisation believes that "coercive psychology is a bad thing. Psychiatry which places itself above the law is a bad thing: it can incarcerate people, and give them treatment against their will, and their objection to the treatment is part of their madness… If psychiatry had decent and effective treatments, people wouldn't mind getting those treatments, they would willingly have them, they would get better from those treatments, they would improve their health and psychiatry would earn its place in the world."

Massey University professor Peter Lineham, an expert on alternative religions, said he thought the exhibition was more likely to be a public relations exercise to build credibility for the much-criticised church, whose celebrity adherents include Tom Cruise and John Travolta, than a direct push for members. "Recruitment potential could be quite weak, but giving themselves credibility could be quite important."

The star of Top Gun and the Mission Impossible series, Tom Cruise is probably Scientology's most famous celebrity adherent.

Some of those who visited the exhibition and talked to the staff hosting it had their contact details taken and were invited back to an evening meeting at the mall. Ferriss described it as a "networking gathering" and not a recruitment opportunity for the church. "You would like to think it was, but it's not," he said.

Lineham said he suspected the shopfront served two major purposes for the scientologists: to pursue their long-held hatred of the psychiatric profession, and to attempt to attach mainstream credibility to their work. He said scientology had long tried to attach itself to popular causes in an attempt to secure support from those outside the church.

Lineham attended the opening of Scientology's new New Zealand base in Grafton, Auckland, last year, and was struck by the "extremely emphatic hostility to the profession of psychiatry: it reminded me that this is an obsession of the scientologists. Scientology does present itself as a route to personal health - and they do seem to attract people who deeply blame psychiatry for their personal problems.

"It does suggest they are trying to find avenues to connect with New Zealanders more strongly - part of their problem has been that the general attitude to Scientology here is not exactly sympathetic."

Lineham said he was interested in what the size of the society was or its financial health: "What substance lies behind it?"

The society's last set of accounts filed, to the year ending March 2016, shows they are not flush with cash. They had an income of just $5578, chiefly from donations, a net loss of $905, and while they had $12,138 in the bank, they were overall in the red because they owed executive director Green some $14,657 in loans.

Ferriss said the CCHR's international parent body helped fund this exhibition. 

Evening meetings at the mall were "networking" gatherings, not recruitment opportunities for Scientology, Mike Ferriss said.

Some locals were outraged by their presence in the mall. One local man, who paid three visits to the exhibition, said: "I expressed my dismay at them and asked how they would feel if someone who required psychiatric help ended up killing themselves because they didn't get the right treatment?"

Another local businessman, who said he didn't want to be named because he was worried about the church's response, said: "I am very worried that impressionable local teenagers hanging around the mall during the school holidays could be hook-line-and-sinkered by these people."

He was among those who had complained to the mall's letting agent, James Devlin, who replied in an email: "We live and learn sometimes we do these short term deals thinking we understand what we are in for but what transpires is something else...".

But Devlin admitted to Stuff that the mall's owners — the New Zealand Retail Property Group — were aware of the Scientology link before they agreed the three-week lease. "We knew they were [related]," he said. "Their website says they are related to Scientology but we had clauses in the licence that they wouldn't be promoting Scientology and I'm not aware of any evidence [that they did]."

Devlin said it was the first time NZRPG had leased to the organisation and he "wouldn't have thought" they would do so again.


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