Scientology, CCHR, and Serious Mental Illness – New York Times

A major impediment to reforming care for the seriously mentally ill is Scientology, which according to their webste is a religion. Scientology does not believe in the medical model of mental illness, as is their right.They founded Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) to end the medical model. CCHR believes psychiatry is torture and psychiatrists caused 9/11. They are working to eliminate non-scientologists’ rights to take medication or electroconvulsive therapy.

Following is an article from the New York Times on the impact on one person.

Scientology Faces Glare of Scrutiny After Florida Parishioner’s Death


New York Times December, 1, 1997

[C] LEARWATER, Fla. — Late on a November afternoon two years ago, a 36-year-old Scientologist named Lisa McPherson was involved in a minor traffic accident. She was not injured, but she inexplicably stripped off her clothes and began to walk naked down the street. A paramedic rushed her into an ambulance and asked why she had taken off her clothes. Ms. McPherson replied: “I wanted help. I wanted help.”

She was taken to a nearby hospital for a psychiatric examination, but several Scientologists arrived and explained that their religion opposes psychiatry. Ms. McPherson asked to leave and, against medical advice, she was released into the care of the Scientologists. Seventeen days later, after being kept under 24-hour watch at a Scientology-owned hotel in downtown Clearwater, Ms. McPherson was dead.

By church accounts, she had spit out food, banged violently on the walls of her room and hallucinated. The county medical examiner said Ms. McPherson was deprived of water for at least her last 5 to 10 days and died of a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration.

An examination of Ms. McPherson’s life and death, including a review of church records and other documents from a lawsuit filed by her family, offers an unusually rich look into the world of one Scientologist. It shows how virtually every aspect of her life — work, friendships, relationships with family members, even choices of vacation spots — was influenced by the church. It also shows the financial demands Scientology places on its members.

Ms. McPherson worked at a business owned by Scientologists and spent so much of her salary on church courses that she had to borrow from her employer to keep up with her studies in church doctrine. She was able to deduct the payments for those courses from her taxes, but when she got her refund from the federal government, it was turned immediately over to her employers to pay for more courses.

The financial pressure on members of Scientology is one reason critics worldwide describe the church as a cult and money machine intended to bilk the faithful, who pay large sums to undergo counseling sessions. This is the primary reason given by the German government for refusing to recognize Scientology as a religion.

Beyond the financial issues, the circumstances surrounding Ms. McPherson’s death raise questions about whether the church’s handling of her medical treatment, particularly its failure, for philosophical reasons, to provide psychiatric care, contributed to her death.

The Commitment: Strong Beliefs And Large Donations

Certainly in her progression within Scientology, Ms. McPherson gave more to her church than average Americans donate to traditional churches. In the last two years of her life, she paid $97,000 for Scientology courses with names like “Wall of Fire” and “New Life Rundown.” The payments amounted to 40 percent of her earnings.

In keeping with the church’s belief that people live many lifetimes, Ms. McPherson signed what Scientology calls a “billion-year contract,” as a member of the Sea Organization, Scientology’s elite staff group. Although she later resigned from the staff, she remained a devout Scientologist. And when her life began to fall apart, she turned her back on conventional medical treatment and sought refuge in Scientology.

“For members who are deeply involved, Scientology becomes a totalistic institution,” said Stephen A. Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, who has studied the organization. “It provides them with everything from occupation, pseudo-medical treatments, entertainment and a justice system to an overarching purpose for their lives.”

Scientology founder, Hubbard, said people were immortal spirits who have lived through many lifetimes and accumulated traumatic memories that are obstacles to achieving their full potential.

Adherents believe that those afflictions can be eliminated through a series of counseling courses, known as auditing. Most of the courses involve detailed questioning about Scientology and the members’ lives, by church ministers who monitor responses with a crude lie detector they call an E-meter. The result, after years of courses, is an individual who is “clear” of problems.

Ms. McPherson was so successful that she earned commissions of $136,812. Despite her income, Ms. McPherson lived frugally. She shared a $695-a-month apartment with a roommate and bought little jewelry or furniture. But no expense was spared when it came to Scientology. Church financial records turned over in the family’s lawsuit show that Ms. McPherson paid $55,767 for Scientology courses in 1994 and contributed $41,924 in 1995.

The Collapse: A Roller Coaster Barrels Downward

The final year of Ms. McPherson’s life was tumultuous. In Scientology terms, she was “roller coastering,” meaning she was going through emotional ups and downs. In June 1995, she apparently suffered a mental breakdown. A report prepared after her death by the church said, “She caved in and went into a spin (psychotic break).”

She spent two days recuperating at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, the church’s primary retreat. Her payments to the church fell sharply, but within a month she had resumed paying thousands of dollars a week for courses.

Her commissions at work remained low, however, and she borrowed from her employers to pay for the courses. AMC payroll records show that Ms. McPherson borrowed more than $33,000 in 1995, and paid the same amounts to the church for courses. By September, she apparently had recovered enough to reach the coveted status of clear.

Photographs of her award ceremony show Ms. McPherson beaming, and she wrote passionate letters of thanks to fellow Scientologists.

But the roller coaster was headed down. In late October, she was on the telephone to her mother, sobbing that she had let down her group at work, her aunt said.

Two weeks later, she telephoned Kelly Davis, a childhood friend in Dallas, and said she was going home to stay, by Christmas at the latest, Ms. Davis said. In a sworn deposition, Ms. Davis said she interpreted Ms. McPherson’s remarks to mean that she was leaving the church.

Her aunt, Mrs. Liebreich, said the family also thought that Ms. McPherson was considering leaving Scientology. Church lawyers said she had no intention of leaving the fold.

She never went home

About dusk on Nov. 18, 1995, Ms. McPherson was driving her 1993 Jeep in Clearwater when she struck a boat being towed by a car that had stopped for an earlier accident. Damage was minor and paramedics at the scene examined Ms. McPherson and found her uninjured.

Then she took off her clothes and began to walk along the street. Bonita Ann Portolano, one of the paramedics, helped her into the ambulance. Mrs. Portolano said Ms. McPherson was muttering about not needing a body to live and said she had taken off her clothes because she wanted help.

In a later deposition, Mrs. Portolano estimated that Ms. McPherson weighed 155 pounds. “She was a very healthy person, just voluptuous,” the paramedic said.

After Ms. McPherson was taken to a nearby hospital, seven Scientologists, including some senior officials arrived.

She refused psychiatric treatment and said she would not harm herself, and she was released into the care of her fellow parishioners.

Although Scientologists do accept medical treatment, Ms. McPherson was following the church’s conviction in rejecting psychiatric care. Church literature says psychiatrists were paid by the government to denounce Scientology as a hoax when Hubbard, a successful science fiction writer, began the church in 1954.

In 1969, the church created the Citizens Commission on Human rights, which was supposed to expose and eradicate “human rights abuses by psychiatry.” In January 1974, Hubbard wrote a paper describing what he called the “Introspection Rundown” for treating people who suffer mental breakdowns. He said that the technique “possibly ranks with the major discoveries of the 20th century” and that it would do away with psychiatry.

The first step is to isolate the people who suffer breakdowns to protect them and others. No one is allowed to speak to the people or within their hearing, except to deliver lessons supposed to locate and correct the problems that led to the breakdown

The Death: From A Hotel Room To An Emergency Room

Lisa McPherson spent her final days in isolation in Room 174 at the rear of the Fort Harrison Hotel. A church lawyer initially described her stay to a local reporter as restful, and he said she had received no medical treatment.

But 33 pages of handwritten logs tell a far bleaker tale. The logs were released this summer on orders from the judge hearing the McPherson estate’s lawsuit.

Scientology staff members who monitored Ms. McPherson 24 hours a day kept them, and the notes depict a woman whose mental condition deteriorated rapidly and whose health began to fail well before she died.

Two days into her stay, the logs recount Ms. McPherson spitting out food and vomiting. The fourth day, she was ashen-faced and feverish. She was often described as violent, striking her attendants and banging on the walls. She soiled herself and hallucinated that she was Hubbard.

One of the logs indicated that she tried to leave the room, but church lawyers say that she was not restrained. Rather, Ms. Vaughan, one of the lawyers, said, she was incapable of caring for herself.

Among those who cared for her was Dr. Janis Johnson, a member of the church medical office. Dr. Johnson is a physician who is not licensed to practice in Florida and had agreed to restrictions on her medical license in Arizona in 1993 after two hospitals questioned her use of prescription drugs.

On Dec. 1, 1995, Dr. Johnson administered a prescription sleep medication to Ms. McPherson, and left written instructions that Ms. McPherson be given two liters of liquid when she awoke.

Kennan Dandar, the lawyer for the McPherson estate, said two liters was a substantial amount of liquid and that the instructions were an indication that Ms. McPherson was in need of immediate medical attention. “They should have taken her to the hospital immediately,” Dandar said. “Instead, they kept her there until she died.”

Notes for Dec. 2 and 3 indicate that Ms. McPherson drank some liquids and was coherent at times. Scientology officials said they could not find the notes for the final two days of her life.

On the evening of Dec. 5, Ms. McPherson’s condition had deteriorated to the point that Dr. Johnson sought outside help. Records indicate that about 7 p.m. she telephoned a Scientologist who was working as an emergency room doctor at a hospital in New Port Richey, Fla., 45 minutes from Clearwater. Dr. Johnson and another church staff member took Ms. McPherson to the New Port Richey hospital, passing four other hospitals. When they arrived, hospital records and court files show, Ms. McPherson had no pulse. She was pronounced dead after 20 minutes of resuscitation efforts. “She was thin, she was unkempt, dirty, just not taken care of,” said the emergency room nurse who helped to try to revive Ms. McPherson.

Because it was an unattended death, an autopsy was done, it found that Ms. McPherson, who was 5-foot-9, weighed 108 pounds and that she had scratches and bruises on her hands and arms. The cause of death was listed as a thromboembolism, or blood clot, in her left pulmonary artery. Severe dehydration and bed rest caused the clot, the autopsy said. A police inquiry was started, as a matter of routine.

The Aftermath: An Investigation Expands, And A Lawsuit Follows

In January, Dr. Joan Wood, the county medical examiner, appeared on “Inside Edition,” the syndicated television program. Wood said the autopsy indicated that Ms. McPherson had gone without water for at least 5 to 10 days, and possibly longer. She said Ms. McPherson had been unconscious for the last 24 to 48 hours of her life and that the scratches on her arms were cockroach bites. “This is the most severe case of dehydration I’ve ever seen,” she said.

The church hired its own medical experts. Its lead lawyers in the criminal case, Ms. Vaughan and Lee Fugate, said in an interview that those experts disagreed with Dr. Wood. The lawyers declined to identify the experts.

New York Times December, 1, 1997