Scientologists vs. psychiatrists.

Scientologists vs. psychiatrists.

Scientologists vs. psychiatrists.

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 24 2005 6:28 PM

Scientologists vs. Psychiatrists

Why they don't get along.

In an interview shown on NBC's Today on June 24, celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise railed against modern treatments for mental health problems. "I've never agreed with psychiatry, ever," he said. Do all Scientologists have a problem with psychiatry?

Yes. Scientology has its roots in a maverick form of psychological counseling that rejects the principles of modern psychiatry. In 1950, L. Ron Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. (He founded the Church of Scientology a few years later.) The book outlined a philosophy of mental and physical illness and a method for treatment. Hubbard rejected the notion that psychiatry could provide lasting cures for psychological problems and condemned psychiatric treatments he deemed inhumane, like electroconvulsive therapy.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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The extent of the feud might stem from the immediate backlash that Hubbard received from mainstream mental health organizations. Dianetics was published in May 1950; by September, the American Psychological Association had advised therapists to avoid it. Not long after, the board of medical examiners in Hubbard's home state of New Jersey pursued legal action against him for practicing phony medicine.

Hubbard responded by challenging conventional mental health practitioners to a sort of therapy-off. "Two neurotic individuals" would be subjected to one week each of dianetics and psychiatry; if the psychiatric patient turned out better, Hubbard would withdraw his claims. It's unclear if this showdown ever took place.

According to Hubbard's principles, the mind has an "analytic" and a "reactive" component. Under certain circumstances of emotional or physical distress, the analytic brain shuts down and the reactive brain records a deep, "cellular" memory (what he called an "engram") of the stressful event. These memories can extend back to the moment of conception and to past lives.

Hubbard claimed that mental and physical problems are often psychosomatic manifestations of those memories. If a patient could be coerced into re-experiencing that engram through a process of "dianetic reverie," the memory might be erased and the condition cured. He said that even infections like tuberculosis were susceptible to dianetic therapy.

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Scientology emerged a bit later as the spiritual outgrowth of the dianetics movement. With the development of Scientology came some of Hubbard's more far-out concepts, like the prehistoric invasion of Earth by space aliens.

His campaign against psychiatry never abated. The church created the Citizens Commission on Human Rights in 1969, with the goal of "investigating and exposing psychiatric violations of human rights." In the past few years, the commission has campaigned vehemently against the use of anti-depressants by teenagers and argued that psychiatric treatment has accounted for a number of prominent school shootings.

Explainer thanks reader Michael Laidlaw for asking the question.