Scientologists Reach Out To Troubled In Ad Campaign

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) - The Church of Scientology has started a $1 million billboard campaign in Cleveland and other U.S. cities, with the signs claiming to have answers for people struggling with fear, grief and economic uncertainty.

"No matter how bad it is ... something can be done about it," the ad reads, urging people to call a Scientology volunteer minister.

The national media campaign is aimed at what Scientologists say is "a nation still troubled by the Sept. 11 attacks."

Some mental health experts aren't so sure. They express concern about the organization's motive and expertise in treating emotional distress. They say the campaign looks like a recruitment tool.

Volunteer ministers are parishioners trained in basic Scientology principles which the church says enable them to solve a variety of problems from marital troubles to drug addiction.

The campaign grew out of the Sept. 11 attacks, said Linda Simmons Hight of the Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles.

In the five months since the terrorist attacks, the number of volunteer ministers has grown from 5,000 to 14,000, she said.

Cynthia Folcarelli, executive vice president of the National Mental Health Association, said it clearly presents a message that people are in emotional distress and Scientology can help.

"We are concerned Scientology may be playing on people's vulnerability to increase their membership," she said. "We have seen the Scientologists present themselves in other settings as mental health counselors when in fact they're not qualified to provide those services."

The National Mental Health Association criticized Scientology when the church promoted a hot line number under "National Mental Health Assistance" following the Sept. 11 attacks. The hot line scrolled across the bottom of the screen on Fox News, but did not mention Scientology. The cable news channel yanked it after being told of its connection.

The Church of Scientology is opposed to psychiatry and psychology.

Volunteer ministers study a handbook with lessons on improving communication skills, resolving conflicts, getting people off drugs and helping domestic relations.

It takes about 40 hours to complete all 19 chapters, although some volunteers study only select portions, said volunteer coordinator Sarah Gorgone.

Folcarelli said mental health professionals spend years studying and are licensed.

"Mental health training is not a do-it-yourself proposition," Folcarelli said. Scientologists "not only aren't trained to provide counseling, they reject what years of science and research have taught us about appropriate mental health intervention."

Hight said church leaders aren't surprised by the criticism. She denies that the campaign is about recruitment and said volunteer ministers do not proselytize.

Besides Cleveland, billboards have gone up in New York; Los Angeles; San Diego; San Francisco; Sacramento and San Jose, Calif., and Clearwater, Fla.. More are scheduled for Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Washington, D.C., Chicago and St. Louis.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)