LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of billboards presenting distressing images and messages about the dangers of prescription drug use by children appeared seemingly overnight along LA’s busy streets last month.
“As far as we know, no parent ever overdosed on too much drug information,” one billboard read.
“Something’s wrong when an anti-suicide drug comes with an increased risk of suicide,” read another.
The warnings aimed at parents were accompanied by vibrant illustrations showing a child trapped inside an orange pill bottle, tiny hands grasping for medication, and an infant nursing a prescription instead of milk, striking a similar tone to campaigns promoting anti-vaccine misinformation and stoking fears, one public health researcher told BuzzFeed News.
Know More About Drugs, the group behind the billboards and a slick social media campaign, bills itself as an “alliance of doctors, parents & child advocates who believe parents have the right to be given factual info about prescribed psychotropic drug risks.” But while the ads take a public service tone, and the group’s website links to the Food and Drug Administration's database on medication side effects, BuzzFeed News has learned the campaign is fully funded by a celebrity Scientologist, and many of the people involved have connections to the church’s infamous advocacy against psychiatry.
Scientology takes a position that mental illness diagnoses are a hoax and treatment with medication is abusive. Nancy Cartwright, the actor best known as the voice of Bart Simpson and a Scientologist who’s been involved in the church’s anti-psychiatry advocacy, told BuzzFeed News she founded the Know More About Drugs campaign because she’s passionate about issues around prescription drugs.
The aim of the campaign, she said, is solely to promote medication guides that are available on the FDA’s website.
“I hope it inspires parents and caretakers to find out all they can about these drugs and discuss the egregious side effects with their doctor before any decisions are made,” she said in an email.
Cartwright, who is also a painter, created the artwork used for the billboards and social media posts.
“I decided that I wanted to do something impactful — even disturbing — and yet strike a chord of truth,” she said.
While Cartwright did not directly address whether her beliefs as a Scientologist played a role in her founding the campaign, she said it wasn’t her place to advise others whether or not to take medications — that’s up to parents and doctors.
“As far as religion goes, it’s not pertinent when it comes to the Know More About Drugs Alliance and campaign,” she said. Three other founding members of the group also told BuzzFeed News they did not believe Scientology’s controversial position on psychiatry influenced the group’s work.
However, Cartwright and most of the other founding members have taken part in events or programs associated with Scientology’s work on mental health, including its notorious anti-psychiatry propaganda machine, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.
Like Know More About Drugs, CCHR seeks to inform people about the risks of psychiatric drugs, but the Scientology-founded nonprofit goes further. Experts have described its work as an anti-psychiatry crusade, and the group denies that there is any scientific basis for psychiatric treatment. In Hollywood, a couple of blocks from popular tourist attractions, the group runs the Psychiatry: An Industry of Death Museum, which is free and open to the public seven days a week. In addition to exhibits on electroconvulsive therapy and other historical treatments, the museum blames psychiatry for events including the Holocaust and the 9/11 terror attacks.
Where the groups overlap is in their desire to protect children, said Mathy Milling Downing, another founding member of the Know More About Drugs campaign. Downing, who is not a Scientologist, appeared in a CCHR video in 2009 to tell the story of her 12-year-old daughter Candace, who killed herself during a psychotic break after a hospital administered an overdose of her prescribed antidepressant.
If she had known that suicide was a potential risk, Downing said she would never have allowed her daughter to take the drug. Her mission now is to make sure other parents are informed, she said, and she’s willing to work with anyone who shares that objective.
“Why shouldn't we join together as one voice to try to right a wrong or create a safer, healthier environment for our children, one based on moving forward together?” she said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Know More About Drugs is not based on religious affiliation. It's based on caring about the direction of our society and the wellbeing of our children.”
It was Downing’s story that first brought Cartwright to the issue of prescription drugs; the women met about 10 years ago, Cartwright said, and as a mother, she empathized with the devastation of losing a child.
Since then, Cartwright has been a presenter at CCHR’s annual awards and signed a letter that urged fellow artists to avoid psychotropic drugs and blamed psychiatry for the deaths of celebrities from Judy Garland to Kurt Cobain. The letter also blamed antidepressants and other drugs for the increase in school shootings, a claim that is not backed by science.
Unlike the strident videos and materials on “psychiatric abuse” produced by CCHR, Know More About Drugs has focused its message on the potential side effects of drugs and appealing to parents to get informed. Its website and Facebook page promote news articles on the risks of antidepressants, opioids, and other drugs for children, and encourages parents to look up FDA medication guides online, rather than depend on the literature provided by pharmacists. But even its logo highlights opposition to medication, with the group’s name partially printed in bold to read “No More Drugs.”
In addition to the billboard campaign, which one outdoor advertising company estimated translated into millions of views over four weeks, Know More About Drugs has promoted its message on Facebook with roughly 160 advertisements. Facebook would not disclose the reach of the ads on the platform, citing its policy on health-related advertisements.
A video promoted in some of the ads shows children fighting clouds of darkness, interspersed with images of prescription bottles and pills.
“What if there are serious side effects? What if your child could become addicted? What if you could make an informed decision regarding your child’s prescription opioids and psychotropic drugs before it’s too late? Would you?” the video asks.
Encouraging parents to be aware of their child’s health is a good thing, but the campaign’s focus on fear bears striking similarities to anti-vaccine misinformation, University of Pittsburgh researcher Beth Hoffman told BuzzFeed News.
Hoffman, whose work was published in the journal Vaccine, has researched the types of messages used to oppose vaccines on social media, finding they often focused on four themes: trust of the scientific community, natural alternatives, safety, and conspiracy. Like anti-vaccine messages, the billboards ultimately play on emotions, she said.
“Fear is a very strong motivator. So the pictures being used in this ad campaign, as well as a lot of the pictures we saw on social media related to vaccines, are really frightening,” she said. “I think it’s very understandable why parents who are seeing these images are scared for the health of their children.”
Dr. Scott Benson, a psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents, told BuzzFeed News he’s happy to see the billboards pointing parents to FDA information. Psychiatric conditions like depression and ADHD are real, he added, and he wants his patients to be fully informed partners in the treatment process.
“If you really look at the FDA guidelines, it says these medicines are really good for people,” he said. “If you have this condition, you really ought to look at medicine.”
Benson said he’s seen some patients who are afraid to take medication that could help them, while others are looking for a prescription that won’t address what’s really going on. The key, he said, is for parents to do their research, then make sure they’re getting a thorough medical evaluation for their child. In addition to the FDA, Benson recommended the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the National Institute of Mental Health’s resources for families.
All treatments carry risks, as does doing nothing, he added. With a mental illness like depression, medication can bring a risk of suicide in children and young adults, and doctors, parents, and patients need to discuss a safety plan in advance. But avoiding treatment also means a patient is at risk for suicide, he said.
“We still have to treat the condition,” he said. “It’s fine if you don’t want to take the medicine, but let’s talk about what we are going to do.”
Hoffman hopes her research can help health care providers talk through specific concerns and better understand parents’ reservations about vaccines or other treatment.
“That’s where I think public health officials and medical officials can play a role in trying to provide education about what is meant by terms like safe and effective, what are known harms, what are scientifically valid risks and benefits, and providing parents with that information so they can make the best choice for their child,” she said.
But, Hoffman added, sometimes that’s not enough. Parents today are inundated with messages about their children’s health, some of them from dubious sources, she said, and it’s up to public health professionals to do more to cut through the noise.
“Public health officials need to be creating tools related to media literacy to help people better decipher the information they’re being exposed to on social media,” Hoffman said, “[so they’ll] be able to better distinguish valid scientific information from information that may appear scientific, but isn’t actually.”