This blog is dedicated to all electroshock and psychiatric survivors.
Today, most people including many health professionals are surprised to learn that electroshock (ECT) is still prescribed — many believe shock was banned after viewing the shock scene in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As we know, electroshock has greatly increased and spread in many countries. According to a CBC report a few years ago, approximately 15,000 Canadians are shocked each year, and at least 100,000 in the United States. As we also know, women, particularly elderly women, are the main targets of electroshock — women over 60 and many in their 80s or 90s have been shocked in Canada. According to ECT statistics I obtained a few years ago from the Ontario and B.C. governments, two to three times more women than men have been shocked. The real but hidden reasons are sexism, ageism, ableism and mentalism shared by many psychiatrists and other doctors.
Whether young or old, the patient’s right to informed consent or to refuse treatment is routinely violated, the common effects of permanent memory loss and brain damage are omitted in most “patient information” consent forms. So-called “safe and effective ECT” is a cruel sham, another psychiatric lie since it always destroys memories, kills brain cells, and causes brain damage.12 In their official position papers, the Canadian Psychiatric Association and American Psychiatric Association still deny or greatly minimize the scientifically proven fact of ECT-caused brain damage. However, the comprehensive 2007 scientific study of psychologist-researcher Harold Sackeim clearly exposes the grim reality of permanent memory loss and brain damage, particularly among women and elderly survivors.3 These facts together with massive and permanent memory loss, loss of artistic or creative ability, and psychological trauma are some of the horrible truths about this barbaric psychiatric procedure. So-called “safe and effective ECT” is an absolute lie.
Despite its many life-threatening and disabling risks, electroshock is currently and widely prescribed in virtually all provincial and state hospitals and mental health centres in Canada, the United States, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and dozens of other allegedly “free and democratic” countries in Europe and Asia. In Toronto, for example, ECT is frequently prescribed in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) — a notorious drug and shock mill — as well as general hospitals such as St. Michaels, Sunnybrook, and Women’s College Hospital, to name a few. Women diagnosed with depression, bipolar mood disorder, postpartum depression, schizophrenia and other fraudulent psychiatric diagnoses are targeted for ECT, they are suffering from alleged “mental disorders” as described in the unscientific and stigmatizing Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), psychiatry’s bible of “mental illness.” To compound this medical fraud, Medicare, including OHIP, covers ECT; every ECT procedure including recovery time lasts less than 30 minutes.
Over 10 years ago, I obtained some ECT statistics for both Ontario and British Columbia — they’re alarming. These government stats clearly show that approximately 70% of people shocked were women; at least 50% of women shocked were 65 and older in both provinces. Many were in their 80s, some in their 90s. In 2001 when B.C. psychiatrist Jaime Paredes formally complained about the disproportionately large number of elderly patients shocked in Vancouver’s Riverview Hospital, he was fired. In the mid-1990s, psychiatric nurse Stacie Neldaughter was not only fired but lost her nursing license after she refused to witness the disproportionately large number of women being shocked in a Madison,Wisconsin hospital operating room.
In short, two to three times more women than men are being shocked today; the main reasons are sexism, ageism, ableism, racism and mentalism in psychiatry, all officially denied of course. With the exception of Dr. Bonnie Burstow, no Canadian health professional gives a damn, and no Canadian psychiatrist or neurologist has the courage to publicly criticize shock or demand its abolition.4 The situation in the United States is more hopeful. For example, a number of dissident professionals such as psychiatrist Peter Breggin and clinical psychologist John Breeding have frequently and publicly denounced electroshock and shock doctors as inhumane, and have joined shock survivors and other critics and allies in urging a global ban. Breggin has also publicly and repeatedly criticized antidepressants and neuroleptics as brain-damaging and unethical.5
I now want to mention a few recent protests in the growing global anti-shock and antipsychiatry movements to ban electroshock, particularly in Canada. In 2008, the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA) organized public protests with the demand and theme “STOP SHOCKING OUR MOTHERS AND GRANDMOTHERS” — in the next three years CAPA held a few other protests with the same message, including one in 2009 and another in 2010 at the international PSYCH-OUT Conference in Toronto, which soon sparked sister protests in Montreal, Ottawa and Cork, Ireland. Two years ago in 2015, CAPA held a successful anti-shock protest in front of Toronto’s Sheraton Centre Hotel where the American Psychiatric Association was holding its annual meeting — shock survivor Connie Neil and Ontario NDP-MPP Cheri DiNovo were two of several strong critics and speakers. Many similar protests, rallies, and marches were also held the same day in 30 cities in eight countries. May 16, 2015 was historic, because it was the first coordinated International Day of Protest Against Electroshock. Unfortunately, there was no international protest last year and none this year, but sister protests in Montreal and in Cork, Ireland continue.
It’s also worth mentioning 2005, another historic year when CAPA organized a successful four-day public forum on electroshock and psychiatric drugs titled “Enquiry Into Psychiatry,” which was held in the Council Chamber of Toronto City Hall. Over 60% of the shock survivors who testified were women. Here are a few excerpts of some of their personal and riveting testimony:
JACQUELINE: “I can’t recall experiences between 1995 and 1999… Pre-1995 has been wiped out for me by ECT. When I woke up after the first treatment, I didn’t know the year or what country I was in.”
WENDY: “After 14 months locked up in a psychiatric unit, I returned home to a family I had no memory of. My social work career and law [school] aspirations vanished. The intent of ECT is to kill brain cells.”
PAIVI: “[Electroshock caused an] excruciating headache. I thought my head was about to explode; it was so bad I was unable to eat for the next two days. [Electroshock] stunted my creativity, my imagination… I used to use imagination to paint… this extreme treatment has numbed my emotions. The numbed emotions have continued today. I’ve never been able to connect. It’s as if I’m looking through a window watching… I had to relearn how to write a sentence, how to write a paragraph, how to calculate multiplication tables, I’m not as quick or smart as I used to be… a part of my being has been wiped away. ECT should be banned absolutely, no question.”
CARLA: “I couldn’t memorize anymore. I played the piano. I would spend hours trying to memorize one page of music. I kept waiting for them [the memories] to come back and they didn’t… huge chunks of my life are missing. I had no idea what I was getting into. Nobody told me anything”.
SUE: “It was a traumatizing experience that still haunts me to this day… Electroshock is barbaric, unethical, torture. Electroshock must be stopped. [It’s] a crime against humanity.”6
Where Do We Go From Here — What To Do?
I want to offer three possible action proposals in our continuing struggle to abolish electroshock. The first two are practical and immediately needed.
First, let’s establish a SHOCK HOTLINE whose chief purpose is to provide accurate, reliable, and easy-to-understand information on electroshock freely available to psychiatric survivors, families and the general public. Too much of the current ‘ECT’ information in medical and psychiatric journals is too technical and misleading; ECT information in the corporate media and elsewhere is generally inaccurate and promotes a pro-shock bias — they also routinely omit anti-shock statements or criticism by survivors and other critics. The SHOCK HOTLINE should be controlled and independently staffed by women and men survivors, with supportive health professionals as back-up consultants, and run on a 24/7 basis. Free and available information should include basic details of the shock procedure, major effects and risks including memory loss and brain damage, non-medical community alternatives and referral sources.
Second, we need HEALING HOUSES, especially for women traumatized or disabled by shock. We obviously don’t need more psychiatric hospitals and mental health centres that re-traumatize women and threaten their health, sometimes their lives. Community-based HEALING HOUSES could provide essential emotional and social support based on a feminist anti-oppression and anti-racist model and personal empowerment, and provide referral information for community health professionals such as knowledgeable and supportive family doctors, social workers and crisis counselors. HEALING HOUSES should be primarily staffed and managed by women, including recovered shock survivors and crisis or trauma counselors. At least one HEALING HOUSE should be established in each major city — a pilot project is long overdue. Both the House and Hotline can be co-funded by city, provincial and/or national women’s organizations and individual donors.
Third, we need CLASS-ACTION LAWSUITS that directly and powerfully challenge electroshock as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and human rights conventions or protocols of the United Nations including the Convention Against Cruel and Degrading Treatment and Torture. Although there have been two or three individual lawsuits in Ontario, including the historic “Mrs. T” case in 1983,7 what’s needed now are more national class-action human rights and civil rights cases in Canada, the United States and other countries.
Regarding shock resistance, three recent developments are worth mentioning. First, in September of 2017 a class action lawsuit in California was launched — it targets a number of shock machine manufacturers including Somatics and Mecta. Second, a month later in October, two Pennsylvania State representatives introduced a bill to ban the use of electroshock on children; the media recently revealed the shocking fact that 13 children five years of age and under had been electroshocked in Pennsylvania. The third development is the publication of The Other Mrs. Smith, a feminist novel by Dr. Bonnie Burstow, a widely-respected University of Toronto university professor, trauma specialist, antipsychiatry activist, MIA blogger and brilliant author. Her new book features a critical and powerful narrative of a woman shock survivor; this book together with the lawsuits promise to re-energize public resistance against electroshock. These major initiatives should stir more activism in the global anti-shock movement and arouse a growing demand to ban shock.
A few words of caution and comments regarding lawsuits are worth considering. Lawsuits brought by individual shock survivors or family relatives have a weak strategic and political impact; they can be easily discredited or dismissed by pro-shock doctors and psychiatrists including the American and Canadian psychiatric associations. Instead, a coordinated series of class action lawsuits launched and supported by several national civil rights and human rights advocacy organizations in different countries is a much more powerful and effective strategy in achieving abolition. On this point, I very much hope and support the current California class action — it promises to be a huge success and should stimulate more local, regional, national and/or international organizing and media coverage. It’s also important to urge class action lawsuits launched and sponsored by hundreds of women and many women’s and elderly (“seniors”) organizations. Successful class actions against electroshock can have profound educational and political impacts on medical school curricula, psychiatric practice and government health policy, and trigger more accurate and supportive reporting; they should also lead to greater public demands to abolish shock.
Unfortunately, electroshock has been legal for over 70 years in Canada, the United States and many other “free and democratic” western countries, despite the fact that 15%-20% or a smaller percent of doctors prescribe the procedure. Abolition of electroshock must be our sole and overriding objective. As shock survivors, antipsychiatry activists, and professional allies, that means organizing a lot of consciousness-raising public education; public rallies; town hall meetings; workshops; open public forums in colleges and universities with shock survivors, dissident health professionals and supportive academics as featured speakers; and nonviolent civil disobedience. It also means organizing state, provincial and national conferences organized by psychiatric survivors, supportive academics, dissident health professionals, and human rights advocates in major cities, and finding a few supportive and independent reporters and editors in the media — admittedly easier said than done.
As a movement strategy, electroshock must be clearly and frequently framed and understood as a blatant human rights violation — a profound and devastating crime against people’s health and lives. As many of us survivors and activists know all too well, electroshock is not, and never was, “safe and effective treatment,” a myth and lie routinely propagated by biological psychiatrists and their self-serving associations. Instead, it is and always was a direct and life-threatening assault on the brain and mind — an unethical and criminal violation of people’s human rights wherever it is administered.
Abolishing shock should be an urgent, top priority issue; a long-term struggle that has been extremely difficult and frustrating largely because psychiatry is tightly integrated with capitalism including Big Pharma, and all are inherently destructive and exploitative. Nevertheless, it’s time for bold and courageous and coordinated action; it’s time to organize locally, provincially, nationally, globally. At the 1982 International Conference For Human Rights and Against Psychiatric Oppression held in Toronto, I still vividly recall hearing sister survivor “Martha” stand up and shout, “Don’t agonize, organize!” — a powerful slogan worth repeating far and wide.
Let us remember that it is not only our mothers and grandmothers who are the main victims of this barbaric “treatment,” but our daughters, aunts, nieces, sisters, and elders who are also at great risk of being shocked, psychiatrized, traumatized and re-traumatized and stigmatized. And let us remember that they all need our understanding, empathy, and support in resisting electroshock; they need our support while being intimidated and threatened by male sexist, ageist and racist shock doctors; they need empowerment and our solidarity in refusing and bearing witness to this flagrant and continuing violation of human rights; they need to hear us speak out and become whistleblowers; they need to hear us denounce electroshock as a crime against humanity, a psychiatric crime against the minds and lives of brothers and sisters, particularly women and the elderly. To paraphrase the late Leonard Roy Frank, an awesome shock survivor, inspiring anti-shock activist, brilliant editor, and close friend, electroshock is a desecration of the soul, a betrayal of the human spirit. We must STOP SHOCK NOW. If not now, when?
- Leonard Roy Frank was a brilliant, powerful and outspoken shock survivor, activist, and good friend; he greatly influenced my anti-shock activism since the 1980s. In his movement classic The History of Shock Treatment (self-published, 1978), Frank documented massive evidence of ECT-related brain damage and death; also see his online book Electroshock Quotationary (2006). www.endofshock.com/102C_ECT.PDF. ↩
- P. Breggin (2008), Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry, Second Edition New York: Springer Publishing Company. Dr. Breggin’s thoroughly-researched journal critiques and books are widely read and respected by psychiatric survivors, mental health professionals and other critics; also see, D. Weitz (2013). “Electroshock: Torture As Treatment,” in B. LeFrancois, R.Menzies & G. Reaume (Eds), Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press Inc), 2013, pp.158-169. ↩
- H.A. Sackeim, J. Prudic, et al. “The cognitive effects of electroconvulsive therapy in community settings,” Neuropsychopharmacology, 2007, 32(1), 244-254. The most comprehensive scientific study of shock’s memory-destroying and brain-damaging effects, especially on women and the elderly. ↩
- B. Burstow (2015). Psychiatry and the Business of Madness; An Ethical and Epistemological Accounting (Toronto, New York: Palgrave Macmillan). Arguably, this book is the most comprehensive, thoroughly-researched and powerful critique of psychiatry including electroshock — essential reading for all antipsychiatry activists and critics. ↩
- P. Breggin (2008, Second Edition), Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry. ↩
- http://coalitionagainstpsychiatricassault.com/articles/personal-narratives/ Testimony of electroshock survivors, public hearings, Enquiry Into Psychiatry, Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, Toronto, April 2005. ↩
- D. Weitz. Shock Case: A Defeat and Victory, Phoenix Rising, 1984, vol.4, no.3/4 (see Electroshock Supplement, 28A-30A). The late and legendary lawyer, shock survivor and close friend Carla McKague represented “Mrs. T.” and powerfully argued that electroshock is a form of lobotomy. ↩
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.