I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Prior to Alaskan statehood in 1959, the U.S. Congress passed an act aimed at improving mental health care in the territory. The act became a lightning rod for malcontents who saw evil plots aimed at brainwashing Americans. Then, the Scientologists poked their noses into the controversy.
When Mental Illness Was a Crime
Prior to the passage of the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act in 1956, people suffering from mental health problems in the territory were judged to be guilty of a crime.
The accused were brought before a panel of six people. Without the benefit of psychiatric evaluations, the accused would be deemed by the panel to be sane or insane. If guilty of the crime of insanity, the person was sent to prison. Then, they were dispatched into the hands of Henry Waldo Coe and his Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon.
Coe was a banker, politician, and pal of President Theodore Roosevelt. His private hospital was paid to look after inmates; they could not by any stretch of the imagination be called patients. The Oregonian says some inmates “were Indigenous Alaskans whose ‘crime’ might have been deafness, dementia, or simply the inability to speak English.”
Allegations of mistreatment at the hospital and the diversion of large sums of money gave impetus to the passage of the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act.
The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act
Under the act, a trust was set up to deliver mental health services to those suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety, and all other maladies of the mind. Here’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “To fund the Trust, the State selected one million acres of land as part of its land entitlement from the federal government. The lands were to be managed to generate income to help pay for a comprehensive mental health program in Alaska.”
But, there were people in Alaska who cast a covetous eye on the land; they wanted to make money by developing the area for recreational and private use. In 1978, the trust was closed down and valuable parcels of land became private property or were transferred to municipalities. This process, called asset stripping, picked off the choice bits of land and left the scrub deep in the interior to the grizzly bears.
However, mental health support groups fought back with a lawsuit. In 1985, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that abolishing the trust was illegal and reinstated the organization. It was allotted half a million acres that were not carved off and awarded $200 million as compensation for lost income.
The notion of helping people with mental health issues did not sit well with everybody. The period leading up to the enactment of the bill was the height of American paranoia about communism. Somehow, far-right groups and extremist religious fanatics connected the treatment of mentally disturbed patients to a plot to subvert the United States.
This all got started by an obscure newspaper called The Register that was published in Santa Ana, California. In January 1956, it warned the gullible that the mental health bill was a vicious scheme to set up “our own version of the Siberia slave camps.”
Anybody, The Register screamed, could be swept off the streets and expelled to the gulag. “They” had a million acres of Alaskan wilderness in which to stash you; it was dubbed “Siberia, U.S.A.”
Of course, the usual conspiracy theorists latched onto the issue—it was all part of a plot by Catholics and Jews to set up concentration camps run by the United Nations.
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Just to add to the lunacy, the anti-fluoridation people joined in. (The War-on-Christmas crowd and anti-vaxxers hadn’t started yet, but if they had, it’s a safe bet that they would have elbowed their way in as well).
The author of the bill was Bob Bartlett, a congressional Delegate from the Alaska Territory and later a senator. He complained that people were deluging Congress with letters “in such numbers and contain such marvelously strange statements that no man or group of men could hope to follow them all.” He called the authors “psychoceramics”―crackpots.
Despite the best efforts of the fringe maniacs, The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act passed and became the law. But, the opponents weren’t finished yet.
L. Ron Hubbard Chimes In
The mastermind behind the cult-like scam called Scientology joined the hullabaloo, condemning Alaska’s attempt to help those with mental difficulties. Hubbard launched attacks on psychiatry, perhaps because it was a plausible alternative to his expensive Dianetics programs in helping those with disordered minds.
He identified the people he said were behind the “Siberia Bill.” They included directors of the Bank of England, newspaper moguls, and anybody with a psychiatry doctorate. (Surprisingly, the Pope and Queen of England, who are usually on the list of evil global conspirators, were not mentioned).
The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act was the launchpad for Scientology’s continuing battle with the American Psychological Association. In 1992, Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, told ABC’s Nightline program “There was going to be a Siberia, U.S.A., set up on a million acres in Alaska to send mental patients. They were going to lessen the commitment laws, you could basically get into an argument with somebody and be sent up there.”
Scientology has since set up the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights, “whose sole aim is to discredit and dismantle the field of psychiatry” (The Atlantic).
For the time being, it seems the trust that supports mental health services in Alaska is safe, but as with mental health investment almost everywhere in the world, it’s woefully underfunded.
- Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget included a request for a 21 percent cut in federal funding for mental health services.
- According to the World Health Organization, “In low-income countries, the rate of mental health workers can be as low as two per 100,000 population, compared with more than 70 in high-income countries. This is in stark contrast with needs, given that one in every ten persons is estimated to need mental health care at any one time.”
- “Researchers Dig to Find What Became of Morningside Hospital Patients, Alaska’s Mentally Ill.” Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian, January 10, 2019.
- The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
- “Bob Bartlett of Alaska … A Life in Politics.” Claus-M Naske, University of Alaska Press, May 1979.
- “Scientology vs. Psychiatry: A Case Study.” Ford Vox, The Atlantic, July 2, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor