Misinformation can be hazardous to your mental health


Scientology's doublecross

Misinformation can be hazardous to your mental health.


Wrong Answers
LIZ SPIKOL (lspikol@philadelphiaweekly.com)

I'm signed up for Google's news alert service, which a co-worker turned me onto. You sign up, choose a keyword or two, and Google sends you emails linking to news stories related to your keywords.

I entered "mental health" and now I get several emails a day -- and sometimes a dozen or more -- with links to stories that all start to sound the same:

This clinic's closing due to lack of state funds; that homeless person was shot by the cops because they don't have mental health training; these people are working against the odds -- always "against the odds" -- to get the mentally ill in their community some help.

It's a bit of a downer, but it helps me to keep my eye on the ball.

Most often, the sources for the news alerts are national outlets like USA Today, Christian Science Monitor or large regional newspapers like New York Newsday and The New York Times. Sometimes I'll get something from The Post and Courier out of Charleston, S.C., and that's pretty interesting -- if only to confirm that mental illness is a stigmatized plague in every corner of the nation.

There's plenty of international news courtesy of the International Herald Tribune or the BBC, and the news-alert system as a whole is a tribute to Google's never-ending ingenuity.

This week, though, I was shocked to see a link to a story on U.S. Newswire about the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), which is a rabidly irresponsible organization that was founded by the Church of Scientology. I didn't know what U.S. Newswire was, and though the link had "press release" written above it, I quickly clicked without seeing those words.

I found myself reading what I believed was an article headlined, lengthily, "Crime, Fraud, Patient Abuse: Welcome to the World of Psychiatry; Mental Health Watchdog Group Displays Exhibit in Chicago."

The "article" looked like an AP or Reuters-style piece with the concomitant sheen of respectability. It was very long and included this salvo: "As evidenced by the information in the exhibit, psychiatrists have little or no accountability for the damage they inflict on patients."

In what I thought was a news article, CCHR was described as a "mental health watchdog," which is how the organization incorrectly characterizes itself. "Wow," I thought, "they really pulled the wool over this writer's eyes," and I felt sorry for the dumb newswire stringer who got stuck talking to CCHR's mouthy president Bruce Wiseman.

I was so distressed by the piece popping up on my news alert, I looked into the source: U.S. Newswire. It's not a news service at all. Instead, it generates press releases. More than likely, Bruce Wiseman wrote this so-called article himself or hired some PR flak to do it for him. No wonder the language and tenor of the piece were so familiar -- and so very Hubbardy.

I think of myself as a savvy news consumer, but even I was misled despite the "press release" slug. My experience begs the question: Should Google be in the business of sending press releases from Scientologists--or from anyone, for that matter?

I sent Google's media department an email asking that question and was told I'd hear back. But as of this writing, I haven't.

As if that Googly misunderstanding weren't disturbing enough, I was appalled to find a pile of Social Therapy brochures at my favorite hipster-hangout coffee shop. "Change your life. Change your world. Feel better," the brochures say.

What they should say is this: "Come join our cult and, under the pretense of getting help for your mental health problems, have your life taken over by weird people who like Pat Buchanan and produce terrible plays."

After years of research on the group and interviews with ex-members whose lives had been all screwed up by Social Therapy, I had no qualms about taking the whole pile of dangerous propaganda and trashing it. (If you're out there reading this, you weirdos, I dare you to come after me for ridding the coffee shop of your brochures.)

Hipster-hangout coffee shops are, as the Social Therapists must know, perfect for recruiting unemployed, aimless college grads who don't have health insurance but who may need psychological help. There are also a couple regulars at this coffee shop who are clearly mentally ill: They're disheveled and talk to themselves, and the depressed trucker-hat kids studiously avoid them. By dumping the brochures, I hope I've spared both populations a potentially destructive interaction.

So what's the moral to these stories? That there are more wrong answers out there than right ones -- whether online, in coffee shops or on a TV commercial for a pharmaceutical company's latest wonder drug.

People who grapple with psychiatric and psychological problems are often desperate, and they'll look to all kinds of resources for help. Problem is, we keep searching in all the wrong places.

My advice? Trust the people who actually know what they're doing, like your general practitioner, who can be helpful for an initial diagnosis and referral, and your mental health professional, who can determine an appropriate course of treatment.

Whether because of inadvertent misinformation like that provided by Google news alerts or deliberate Social Therapy-style attempts to mislead you, it's a jungle out there. Please be careful.


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