In recent years, a national debate flared over Ritalin, a drug used for more than three decades to treat hyperactivity in children.

Across the country, multimillion-dollar lawsuits were filed by parents who contended that their children had been harmed by the drug.

Major news organizations--including The Times--devoted extensive coverage to whether youngsters were being turned into emotionally disturbed addicts by psychiatrists and pediatricians who prescribed Ritalin.

Protests were staged at psychiatric conferences, with airplanes trailing banners that read, "Psychs, Stop Drugging Our Kids," and children on the ground carrying placards that pleaded, "Love Me, Don't Drug Me."

In 1988, the clamor reached a point where 12 U.S. congressmen demanded answers from the Food and Drug Administration and three other federal agencies about the safety of Ritalin. The FDA assured the legislators that the drug is "safe and effective if it is used as recommended."

The Ritalin controversy seemed to emerge out of nowhere. It frightened parents, put doctors on the defensive and suddenly called into question the judgment of school administrators who authorize the drug's use to calm disruptive, hyperactive children.

The uproar over Ritalin was triggered almost single-handedly by the Scientology movement.

In its fight against Ritalin, Scientology was pursuing a broader agenda. For years, it has been attempting to discredit the psychiatric profession, which has long been critical of the self-help techniques developed by the late L. Ron Hubbard and practiced by the church.

The church has spelled out the strategy in its newspaper, "Scientology Today."

"While alerting parents and teachers to the dangers of Ritalin," the newspaper stated, "the real target of the campaign is the psychiatric profession itself. . . . And as public awareness continues to increase, we will no doubt begin to see the blame for all drug abuse and related crime move onto the correct target--psychiatry."

The contempt Scientologists hold for the psychiatric profession is rooted in Hubbard's writings, which constitute the church's doctrines. He once wrote, for example, that if psychiatrists "had the power to torture and kill everyone, they would do so. . . . Recognize them for what they are; psychotic criminals--and handle them accordingly."

Hubbard's hatred of psychiatry dated back to the 1950 publication of his best-selling book "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." It was immediately criticized by prominent mental health professionals as a worthless form of psychotherapy.

Hubbard used his church as a pulpit to attack psychiatrists as evil people, bent on enslaving mankind through drugs, electroshock therapy and lobotomies. He convinced his followers that psychiatrists were also intent on destroying their religion.

A church spokesman said that psychiatrists are "busy attempting to destroy Scientology because if Scientology has its voice heard, it will most assuredly remove them from the positions of power that they occupy in our society."

Scientologists call Ritalin a "chemical straitjacket" leading to delinquency, violence and even suicide. They claim that it is being used to indiscriminately drug hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren each day. Medical professionals say the Scientology claims cannot be supported and are causing undue panic.

Known generically as methylphenidate hydrochloride, Ritalin is intended for youngsters afflicted with "attention deficit disorder," more commonly known as hyperactivity. It is a central nervous system stimulant that, paradoxically, produces calmer behavior in young people. The government classifies it as a controlled substance.

FDA statistics show that between 600,000 and 700,000 people (70% of them children or adolescents) are being treated with Ritalin. Between 1980 and 1987, the latest period for which statistics are available, the FDA received 492 complaints of serious problems resulting from the drug. The agency said this level of complaints indicates the drug is safe.

Medical experts agree that some doctors may be too quick to prescribe Ritalin as the sole treatment for problems that warrant a more moderate or creative approach. But, they add, the drug itself is not to blame.

Scientologists have waged their war against Ritalin and psychiatry through the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization formed by the church in 1969 to investigate mental health abuses.