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Is Scientology's Narconon Killing Patients?

With seven deaths since 2005, Scientology's Narconon flagship may finally face criminal charges. The bigger scandal is that faith-based addiction programs are embraced as primary treatment. Where does that leave AA?
 
 
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Narconon, the Scientology-affiliated rehab is under investigation by the state of Oklahoma, following three patient deaths within the last nine months. Last Wednesday, the inquiry into the July 19 death of 20-year-old Stacy Murphy was expanded to include the April death of 21-year-old Hillary Holten and the October death of 32-year-old Gabriel Graves. The state district attorney has asked the sheriff’s department to deepen its investigation.

The involvement of law-enforcement agencies—not simply regulatory authorities—suggests the possibility of criminal charges against those involved with the deaths. The facility, Narconon Arrowhead, is located near Canadian, Oklahoma. It is not only licensed by the state and listed on the federal addiction program locator, but also accredited by CARF, an organization that claims on its website to “focus on quality, results” in certifying treatment programs.

The 2009 death of 28-year-old Kaysie Dianne Wernick, who was transferred from Narconon Arrowhead to a nearby hospital while suffering a respiratory infection, resulted in an out-of-court settlement of a civil negligence lawsuit, the terms of which have not been disclosed. There have been three other deaths at that Narconon facility alone since 2005. Over the years, as The Fix has reported, numerous deaths and many lawsuits have been linked to the international Narconon program.

Oklahoma assistant district attorney Richard Hull told the Tulsa Worldthat, “After looking at the [earlier] report and additional witness statements, the District Attorney’s Office has requested the Sheriff’s Office to further investigate,” and that full autopsy and toxicology reports have not yet been received. A spokesperson for Narconon Arrowhead told Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Weekly that program staff found the deaths “deeply saddening” and their loss “has taken an extreme emotional toll on us as well.” Narconon representatives have also told the media that they are cooperating fully with the investigation.

As The Fix reported earlier, the Narconon program is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s “Purification Rundown,” which was originally devised as part of the process required for conversion into Scientology. It involves taking high doses of vitamins and spending four to five hours a day in 150-degree saunas. This is believed to “detoxify” the body and remove drug “residue” that Hubbard claimed was responsible for craving.

There is no scientific evidence, however, that drug “residue” causes craving or that mega-doses of vitamins and marathon super-hot saunas are effective elements in addiction treatment. Indeed, for people who are medically fragile or who have recently taken certain classes of drugs including alcohol, amphetamines and cocaine, intense heat without breaks for relief could potentially lead to hyperthermia, which can be deadly. One study found that 25% of deaths in saunas were associated with alcohol or stimulant use.

Narconon also shares Scientology’s fierce opposition to psychiatry and the use of psychiatric medications, meaning that even if the rest of its methods were evidence-based, it would not be able to effectively treat half of all people with addictions who suffer from co-existing conditions like depression, nor would it utilize the state-of-the-art treatments that include medication. The belief that all psychiatric conditions can be treated via Hubbard’s techniques would not seem to support effective screening and referral for care for these disorders.

In fact, when Narconon was originally fishing for official and popular support to build Narconon Arrowhead rehab in the late 1980s, the  Oklahoma State Board of Mental Health flatly denied approval, pointing out that there was no credible evidence that the program (which also included indoctrination in the teachings of Hubbard) was effective for chemical dependency and that evidence-based effective addiction treatment suggests that, on the contrary, Narconon is very unlikely to work. Nonetheless, Narconon purchased tribal land, without disclosing its ties to Scientology (its typical MO), and got the rehab up and running. Eventually, despite a flurry of negative publicity, it was able to win state-board approval.

Although each Narconon is, at least on paper, independently owned and operated, the Church of Scientology holds the license. Many, if not most, of the staff at the several dozen Narconon rehabs worldwide are Scientologists, and according to many former patients, the implicit goal of the Narconon treatment program is to turn addicts, who may pay tens of thousands of dollars for their rehab stay, into Scientology converts.

All of which raises the question: how on earth has such a program managed to be licensed in numerous states, listed on federal registries of addiction treatment and even accredited by organizations that are supposed to ensure quality and high standards of care?

Narconon is, to some extent, a special case in the rehab industry. As a de-facto extension of Scientology, it can deploy all of that organization’s infamously sophisticated strategies against opponents, including extreme litigiousness and PR and, reportedly, even threats of violence against whistleblowers.

Yet in a larger sense, Narconon’s decades-long viability as a legitimate rehab comes down to the ongoing belief that faith-based treatments, while not permitted as primary care in the rest of the medical system, are acceptable for addictions. There is no other disease or disorder for which a Scientology-based treatment that has been thoroughly discredited by science could win such acceptance. There is no other medical condition for which faith-based programs from multiple religions that also “pray away the gay” are considered part of mainstream care. There is no other medical condition, in fact, for which prayer and meeting are seen as a main element of recovery.

While for mental illness, use of punitive measures like restraint, isolation, humiliation and corporal punishment have long been dismissed as barbaric, even late into the 20th century these were regular features of addiction treatment—and some programs still rely on them, particularly those aimed at teens. One reason that they have been so difficult to root out is that faith, not evidence, remains an acceptable basis for treatment models.

If we are to improve addiction treatment, faith-based care should be as unacceptable as the primary treatment as it is for cancer or heart disease. And that means that supporters of twelve-step programs will have to make some big changes. If addiction is a disease, meeting and prayer can be viewed no longer as treatment for it but merely as adjuncts to care—as they are for other medical conditions. If addiction is a disease, twelve-step material cannot be used in rehab itself— referrals to meetings can be made, information can be provided, and even onsite meetings made available, but counseling can’t consist of use of the steps. That’s just not how medicine or mainstream psychology is practiced.

As with other conditions, the spiritual aspects of the problem—for those who find them important or believe they exist at all—need to be kept separate from medical and psychological care. Otherwise, there will be no way to prevent religious ideas from being sold as treatment: if rehabs can sell programs based on the confession, surrender and faith aspect of AA, why shouldn’t they be able to sell Scientology?

And if they can sell Scientology, why not any belief about treatment anyone wants to promote? There’s no way to set standards of care when your treatment relies on a higher power: if God, why not Xenu?

Some will argue that twelve-step facilitation—a manualized treatment that involves introduction to the steps and encouragement of participation in the program—has been shown in some studies to be as effective as more standard “evidence-based” programs like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy. They will point to research showing that those who do affiliate with AA or NA do better in the long term than those who do not.

But that doesn’t make AA a type of medicine any more than depression recovery through social support is a type of medical care. The mind and body are not separate, and belief certainly can play a role in healing. That doesn’t mean the main medicine for any disorder should be faith. If we continue to allow this, we shouldn’t be surprised when people die in addiction treatment. Medicine itself only advanced and stopped killing more people than it helped when it began to rely on data rather than faith: we need to hold addiction care to this standard, too.

 

Maia Szalavitz is one of the nation’s leading neuroscience and addiction journalists, and a columnist at Substance.com. She blogs for Healthland.com, and has contributed to Time, The New York Times, Scientific American Mind, The Washington Post and many other publications. She has also published three books, including Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). Her last column for Substance.com was about recovery high schools for teens with drug and alcohol problems.