Scientology linked anti-psychiatry exhibit in DTES concerns mental health workers
Exhibit titled Psychiatry: Industry of Death tries to discredit science behind mental illness
Vancouver's Corin Heinrichs was walking home from work when she saw a startling portrait of a young girl who had committed suicide.
The image declared her death was caused by anti-depressants.
The portrait is one of many on display at a travelling exhibit called Psychiatry: An Industry of Death. It recently opened in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and has direct ties to the Church of Scientology — a controversial religion that actively discredits the science behind psychiatry.
"It made me really angry," said Heinrichs, who has struggled with anxiety. "My family has a history of mental illness ... and it seemed like [organizers] were using scare tactics to keep people from getting help."
Heinrichs isn't the only person unnerved by the anti-psychiatric display. Many mental health workers fear the exhibit could negatively sway vulnerable people living through B.C.'s deadly opioid crisis from seeking help.
A self-proclaimed 'watchdog'
The exhibit, lined with archaic images of torture chambers and the Holocaust, was organized by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights — a self-proclaimed mental health watchdog co-founded by the Church of Scientology and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz in the 1960s.
The group's national coordinator, Angela Ilasi, says they're advocating against the use of mental health medications. The CCHR alleges that psychiatrists often wrongly diagnose people with mental illnesses and that medications do more harm than good.
"No scientists knows the correct balance of chemicals in any person's brain," Ilasi said.
Now, the group is spreading its message inside Vancouver's most vulnerable neighbourhood.
"We've had almost 1,700 people come through our doors in the last two weeks, and many of them are from the Downtown Eastside," said Ilasi. "They very much appreciate this because they are struggling."
"Instead of being helped when they went to the mental health industry ... they were instead given more drugs, given more labels," she added.
Local mental health workers fear the message could be disastrous for people battling addiction in the Downtown Eastside — a community that's been devastated by the province's deadly opioid crisis.
"It could arguably be construed as irresponsible to frame psychiatrists as a non-resource for people experiencing difficulty with mental illness and/or addiction," said Jonny Morris, senior research director at B.C.'s Canadian Mental Health Association. "They are a critical resource."
Morris says symptoms of mental illnesses including depression, schizophrenia and addiction are very real and often devastating and that psychiatric treatment — including medication and/or therapy — can alleviate those symptoms dramatically.
He says the images on display at the exhibit are dated and misleading.
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"What people are walking past down [West] Pender is a very thin snapshot [of psychiatry] with images that are probably likely to create a lot of fear."
"I would worry that people might not seek help because of what they see."
Morris admits psychiatry isn't always the answer to battling mental health and addictions; rather, its part of a complex whole — one that includes doctors, psychologists, social workers, and counsellors. He says it's more important to make treatment more accessible.
As Corin Heinrichs can attest, asking for help isn't easy.
"It takes a lot of courage to find that help," she said.
For the last two years, Heinrichs has used medication to treat her anxiety. She says it feels like she can finally breathe.
"We shouldn't be pushing people away — we should be encouraging them to do whatever they need to do to get healthy."
Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: @jonvhernandez