A Shocking Indifference
Why is it that the controversial issue of Electro Convulsive Therapy (Electroshock) does not receive more media attention?
Unfortunately, and possibly due to a subtle, lingering prejudice, mental patients don’t ordinarily command much media or political respect in general. The stigmatising effect of being labelled ‘mentally ill’ means that their every utterance is tacitly assumed to be suspect or invalid. Their protests about their experiences and stories of personal abuse are ignored. Their perspectives are discounted or dismissed out of hand. Coercive measures against them are accepted as probably necessary and ‘in their best interests’. Basically mental illness is an uncomfortable subject area with an automatic assumption, however erroneous, of incompetence, irrationality and even violence.
No other minority group in the western world is so totally abandoned by the normal societal impulses toward common sense and decency. Perhaps the situation is best stated in the “Foucalt Tribunal Indicts Psychiatry” (http://www.oikos.org/ectcomments2.htm):“Functioning as an arm of the state and with state powers, psychiatry has created a category of subhuman from whom every protection and right is withdrawn.”
The most hardened of criminals, including murderers and paedophiles, can only be incarcerated against their will when they have been found guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ of a crime by a court of law. A mental health patient is not deemed to be worthy of the same rights. No proof has to exist; no prior conduct even has to be demonstrated. If, ‘in the opinion’ of psychiatrists, a person might ‘possibly’ do ‘something’, then that is sufficient legal basis to incarcerate them. Mental health patients can be, and are, held against their will and subjected to involuntary ‘treatments’ based upon the arbitrary whim of psychiatrists. The most controversial of these ‘treatments’ is Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), otherwise known as Electroshock.
Electroshock is a psychiatric procedure whereby between 75 and 470 volts are briefly applied to the brain with the aim of producing a grand mal seizure. The current that operates normally within a human brain is of the magnitude of millivolts (thousandths of a volt). It does not take a great deal of imagination to understand the results of passing between 75 and 470 volts through such a delicate mechanism. Frank Vertosick a
US neurosurgeon equated ECT to “repairing a computer with a chainsaw”. The trauma to the body is such that patients have to be given muscle relaxants to avoid the risk of the procedure breaking their backs and other bones.
There are at least nine independent organizations of victims of ECT in the English speaking world alone devoted to the dissemination of an anti-ECT message. Their web sites are full of distressing personal testimonials from people whose lives have been ruined by ECT. Can you imagine a situation whereby ex-patients from conventional medical procedures would form themselves into organizations to protect others from that which they had received themselves? Can you imagine the scenario whereby people were so horrified by the damage done to themselves that they would set up organizations to try to protect others from the same fate? In conventional medicine this situation would create a furore such that the treatment would be, at the very least, thoroughly investigated, and almost certainly banned. The most important and respected tenet of the Hippocratic Oath in conventional medicine is to first do no harm.
Does the fact that some people are apparently helped by ECT justify the damage to the many who are not? Maybe that is best answered by Peter Breggins MD, Psychiatrist and Director of the
Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology:“Some patients do feel ‘helped’ by ECT. Often they have been so damaged that they cannot judge their own condition.”
The contemporary psychiatric justification for ECT is as a preventive measure against suicide in depressed people. This claim is completely negated by the many authoritative and available studies that show ECT does no such thing.* It is but one in a long line of claims for ECT that span the decades. As each has been conclusively disproved so it has been replaced with a new claim. The ‘treatments’ and the brain damage continue unabated, and still in the twenty-first century few listen to the victims.
Anyone who does dare to venture a critical thought upon the self designated sacrosanctity of the psychiatric industry is promptly labelled as delusional, or as suffering from a psychosis. This is not restricted to the legions of physiologically damaged and psychologically traumatised ECT patients. The opinions and observations of experts from within the psychiatric and neurological field, and even the authors of clinical results which conflict with the official line, are similarly labelled. It is an intimidating tactic that has served its perpetrators well for many decades.**
Despite the easy availability of a myriad of professional papers documenting the resultant brain damage from ECT, silence reigns supreme. Brain damage is not a side effect of ECT… brain damage is the treatment. It is the cardiovascular complications, epilepsy, memory loss and deaths that are the side effects. Psychiatry once acknowledged that the ‘therapeutic’ effects of ECT were due to brain damage. In 1942, psychiatrist Dr. Abraham Myerson said:
“The reduction of intelligence is an important factor in the curative process… the fact is that some of the very best cures that one gets are in those individuals whom one reduces almost to amentia (feeble-mindedness)…” (translated from the French original)***
One of the leading advocates of ECT in the
USA, Max Fink, still openly states that the basis of improvement is “similar to that of craniocerebral trauma” (head injury).
But most psychiatrists are necessarily more image conscious today and attempt to present their treatment in more scientific jargon. Now ECT is couched in terms such as ‘neurological realignment’. Indeed.
A 1977 report in the American Journal of Psychiatry spelled it out unequivocally:“From a neurological point of view ECT is a method of producing amnesia by selectively damaging the temporal lobes and the structures within them..”****
Specific statistics on patients who die from ECT were hard to obtain prior to 1993 due to a natural reluctance on the part of psychiatrists to supply them. In 1993, following massive public pressure, the State of Texas in the
USA enacted a law requiring the mandatory reporting of all deaths within 2 weeks of ECT treatment. According to the Houston Chronicle, Tuesday, March 7, 1995: “Eight people died in
Texas within two weeks of receiving electroshock therapy….” These eight deaths were from 1600 recipients. This is a death rate of 1 in 200. The figure at the end of the first 18 months of mandatory reporting in
Texas was 1 in 197 which conformed with and confirmed the percentage obtained with the smaller sample. This is somewhat at variance with the prior psychiatric claims of a death rate of only 1 in 10,000.
The death of one in 200 patients begs the question… how is it possible for someone to die from a mental disorder? How can a problem of the mind result in the death of the body? The shockingly obvious and unavoidable answer is: they don’t, they die from the ‘treatment’… and the indifference of those who should care but who choose to turn their backs.
It is time to turn around and face the victims of Electroshock and to listen to their stories and to acknowledge the dreadful injustice that has been done them. Whether classified as mentally ill or not, all individuals are as deserving of the same Human Rights as any other individual. ECT is, to put it bluntly, a way of shutting up the troublesome mentally ill by inflicting brain damage on them. And it usually works, but at what cost to the individual, and at what cost to a society that tolerates the practise and the practitioners?
“Sometimes it has to get very dark before you can see the light”American Indian Proverb
Philip Barton 11/8/05With a huge acknowledgement to the myriad sources that I used in this article. They were simply too numerous to mention in their entirety… and to the victims of ECT themselves whose personal stories brought tears to my eyes.
* Black, et al ‘Does treatment influence mortality in depressives?’ Ann Clin Psych 1989;1:165-173Babigian, H., et al, ‘Epidemiologic considerations in ECT’ Arch Gen Psych 1984;41:246-253
** A few amongst the many noted and eminent recipients of such slurs are:Thomas Szasz MD – professor emeritus psychiatry, State University of New York,
SyracuseJohn M. Friedberg, M.D. resident. Department of Neurology, University of
OregonPeter R. Breggin, M.D. Psychiatrist, Director of the
Center for the Study of Psychiatry and PsychologyDr. Peter Sterling, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Neurobiology, Department of Anatomy,
*** Abraham Myerson, in discussion of Franklin G. Ebaugh, et al., “Fatalities following electric convulsive therapy: a report of 2 cases with autopsy findings,” Trans. Amer. Neurol. Assoc. 68 (June 1942): p. 39,
**** John M. Friedberg, M.D. American Journal of Psychiatry 134:9, September 1977. pp: 1010-1013.