The “Time to Strike” is Now: A Call for Anti-ECT Activism

Bonnie Burstow, PhD
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The Anti-Electroshock Proclamation

We who care,
We who are committed to decency,
We who behold with horror the disrespect for human life around us,
We who shudder at the knowledge
Of women whose memory has been turned into ember and ashes,
Of families brutally torn asunder by pulse waves or sine waves,
Of the elderly, whose final life reward is electrocution,
We who hold this fearful knowledge can be silent no longer.
LEGISLATORS, on this, the week of Mother’s Day, we hold you directly accountable and call on you to withdraw your authorization for electroshock.
FELLOW CITIZENS who think this “practice” stopped decades ago, on this the week of Mother’s Day,
We tell you that the carnage continues and that you too are responsible.
On this the day before Mother’s Day, May 20__, as survivors and allies, we come together to raise our voices in protest,
And we vow to return,
Return,
And return again
Until this abomination
Is no more. (Burstow, 20041)

The purpose of this blog article is to provide you with some critical counter-hegemonic information. Additionally, the article constitutes a call to action. More specifically, it is a call for action against one of the most horrendous of the current day psychiatric atrocities—the horror euphemistically known as “electroconvulsive therapy.”

The contexts for this article and for this rallying call—and the contexts are important not only as context but also in themselves—are:

  1. Electroshock (ECT) continues to grow, although it has been shown conclusively to be both ineffective and brain-damaging. Moreover, as both professionals and ECT survivors have long demonstrated, it destroys memory and routinely leaves people’s lives in shambles (see Ross, 2006,2 Burstow, 2015,3 and Andre, 20094).
  2. While ECT is unacceptable and is an act of violence no matter who is being subjected to it, ECT is disproportionately violence against women.5 Note in this regard, despite the erroneous impression created by movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in every single period in which shock has been given and in every jurisdiction in which it prevails, two to three times as many women as men are subjected to this brain-damaging treatment—a reality all the more heinous when, as the largest study in ECT history, the Sackeim study,6 shows, women are considerably more damaged by this “treatment” than men. Added to this, ECT is disproportionately given to the elderly. Correspondingly, in light of these statistics, for over a decade now various organizations have demonstrated against shock on the day before Mother’s Day, with the kick-ass group who began the tradition—Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault Assault (CAPA)—brandishing the slogan “Stop Shocking Our Mothers and Grandmothers.”
  3. A novel that makes real the dynamics involved—The Other Mrs. Smith—was recently shortlisted for a prestigious literary award. Which increases the chances of getting it into more and more hands, thereby galvanizing a public awakening.
  4. There has been a stunning breakthrough in a California class action lawsuit against the shock machine manufacturers (and yes, the machines used in California are identical to the ones being used in every state throughout the world, and indeed are produced and marketed by the same companies). As psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin—an expert witness in the case—informs us, the California class action lawsuit against the shock machine manufacturers has yielded exactly what informed critics of ECT would have predicted—in essence, the determination that yes, “a reasonable jury could find that the ECT device manufacturer caused plaintiffs brain-damage by failing to warn . . . of brain injury, or alternatively by failing to investigate and report allegations of brain damage and permanent memory loss to the FDA so that the information would be available to the public.” In light of this development, an agreement has been struck for compensation for the plaintiffs.

And yes, by the way, these are the very machines and procedures that year after year the industry has assured the unsuspecting public are new, improved, safe, and effective—so much for professional pronouncements! And to think that the most of the media still falls for such propaganda! That said, for this breakthrough, we need to thank the law firm D.K. Law Group, who took the case, as well as the gutsy plaintiffs, and the various honest professionals—and there were legions—who provided data that belied the official industry line and/or gave testimony. Though most of all, I would like to acknowledge the courage of one woman shock survivor, whose vision this class action suit was and who did a gargantuan amount of the legwork to make it happen: the as-yet “unsung hero” Deborah Schwartzkopff! I would add, you can soon expect similar lawsuits in state after state throughout the world. Correspondingly, if you yourself are a victim of ECT in any state, I would encourage you to write to [email protected]

The final context—and a particularly compelling one it is—is a personal decision that was made a few months ago by still another courageous woman shock survivor—Ontario resident Connie Neil. Having been profoundly damaged by shock and having both testified and organized against it for years, a short time ago Connie approached Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault announcing her intention to go on a hunger strike against electroshock, and asking CAPA to organize it. After she had received her doctor’s approval and advice on how to do a hunger strike safely, CAPA’s answer was a resounding yes! And what other answer could it conceivably be!!?

I ask the reader to try to stretch to take in the enormity of what has happened here. At a time when society is finally making advances against ECT, what Connie has handed us is nothing short of sensational. Mounting a hunger strike is in line with the best of mad activism—note, in this regard, the Fast for Freedom Hunger Strike of 2013 against the American Psychiatric Association. It dramatizes, makes concrete, and in the process, has the chance of grabbing the attention of the general public. Please note, additionally, that the master of non-violent resistance, Gandhi himself, emphasized the importance of symbolism in non-violent action—and note that what Connie is handing us here is an enormously potent symbol: nothing less than an 80-year-old woman shock survivor who is going on a hunger strike to try to stop the horror that was visited on her from continuing to be visited on others. A symbol like this drops in one’s lap once in a lifetime. And as informed citizens, we are duty-bound to make the most of it.

Hence CAPA’s increased initiative during the week of Mother’s Day. And hence this call for solidarity—this call to action.

So what exactly is CAPA planning for the next year? The agenda, as it has evolved, is as follows:

  1. On May 10, at noon, a press conference will be held in Toronto. In it CAPA members, including Connie and former MPP Cheri DiNovo, will speak out against shock—the public funding of it, the very existence of it—and clarify what CAPA will be doing and why.
  2. On May 11, in alliance with a number of different organizations who are co-sponsoring or endorsing, starting at noon there will be a huge public anti-shock demonstration held on the grounds of the Ontario provincial legislature, complete with speeches, testimonials, and protest songs.
  3. On May 12, at a location still to be determined, the multi-day hunger strike will begin. Connie will be striking, accompanied by supporters. Optimally, she will also be accompanied by women and men fasting in solidarity with her. The days of the hunger strike will similarly be replete with speeches and testimonials, and hopefully with frequent interaction with the media. The pièce de la résistance, of course, is Connie herself. Who can just dismiss an eighty year old shock survivor so committed that she is in essence putting her frail body on the line?

So what can you do? Or to put this another way, how might you yourself get involved?

If you are an organization, examples of things that you can do are:

  • Help CAPA publicize the event
  • Agree to co-sponsor or endorse
  • Help garner sympathetic press
  • Arrange a parallel action in your neck of the woods, possibly your own hunger strike
  • Send statements and testimonials to be read
  • Pressure your own legislators to defund or better yet disallow electroshock
  • Bring a contingent of people to Toronto to take part as hunger strikers and/or supporters of the action.

Individuals may similarly join.

Anyone or any organization that wishes to become involved, whether by taking up one or more of these suggestions, or in any other way, you might begin by emailing the Coalition at [email protected]

In ending, I would encourage as many people and groups as possible to join in this action and/or to create an anti-ECT protest of your own. The long and the short of it is: it is time for the lies about ECT to stop. And beyond that, it is time for the very use of ECT to stop.

What we have here is a social justice issue. What we have here is a feminist issue. Despite the “pseudo-medical” overlay, what we have here is a crime against humanity. Moreover, the momentum is with us.

And the “time to strike” is now.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. Burstow. B. (2004). The Anti-Electroshock Proclamation (written for a demo and used every year—please feel free to spread far and wide and to use as needed).
  2. Ross, C. (2006). The sham ECT literature. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 7-16.
  3. Burstow (2015). Psychiatry and the business of madness. New York: Palgrave.
  4. Andre, L. (2009). The doctors of deception: What they don’t want you to know about shock. Chicago: Rutgers University Press.
  5. Burstow, B. (2006). Electroshock as a form of violence against women. Violence Against Women, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 372-392.
  6. Sackeim, H. et. al (2007). The cognitive effects of electroconvulsive therapy in community settings. Neuropharmacology, 32, 245-255.

52 COMMENTS

  1. I just searched the term electroconvulsive therapy on both Goggle and Bing . I looked at the first 8 pages of Google results and not a single web page protesting ECT was in the results.

    If now is the time to strike the place to strike is web search results to get the word out.

  2. “ECT” = Electro-Cution Torture
    How much simpler can it get?
    Try this:
    “So-called “ECT”, Or “Electro-Convulsive Therapy”, or “Electro-Cution Torture”
    as it’s more accurately known….
    I can’t see the letters “ECT”, without thinking “electro-cution torture”….

  3. While I believe that hunger strikes are generally problematic, both tactically and in principle, and by no measure consider Gandhi to be a hero, this could have a chance of succeeding in garnering some widespread publicity, especially in light of the recent legal victory. Providing that Connie is truly exercising her own volition, and not being egged on in any way, or put in a position where she feels unable to change her mind or end her fast. I would caution that “controlled” hunger strikes don’t get as much publicity, as people get more excited about things with the potential for tragedy — “if it bleeds it leads.” (Don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger.)

    Anyway this sounds like a focused action around a specific issue, which I believe is a good way for the various sectors of the movement to organize at this point in time. I would urge those involved to keep this focus, and not start meandering into other issues. But as it stands I certainly support the effort, and would encourage others to, and convey all sorts of positivity to Connie.

  4. Yours is certainly an important blog post, Bonnie. Thank you for taking this action on. I think it’s long past time that some kind of concrete action was taken over electro-shock and any number of other invasive measures promoted by psychiatry. The 2003 MFI hunger strike has generated more positive commentary in recent literature on the subject of fighting the misinformation fostered by psychiatry than any political actions taken in the past. People should do everything they can to spread word about what is going on in Ontario. If this action spreads to the USA, and beyond, I would certainly want to take part. ECT, as a button I have puts it, is a crime against humanity. If we are going to do something about this and other crimes against humanity we have to do something that will grab people’s attention, and a hunger strike is just the thing to do that. I hope that we are able, through events like this one, to draw attention to the fact that human rights are being violated, and people are being harmed by what purports to be therapy practiced today, most pointedly, in this instance, by electro-convulsive shock maltreatment.

  5. Thank you Bonnie for your advocacy for people harmed by ECT. It is hard to believe ECT is still happening. The average person is not aware of the harm done by psychiatry until they or someone close to them ends up harmed. Thanks to the MIA site I became more informed and now give the link to others, including a psychologist I saw (after a bizarre and traumatic encounter with a psychiatrist during cancer treatment), my family doctor and also the CMHA. I will write my MP in Ottawa to ask for his support to end this social injustice and email CAPA to see what else I could do. I plan to purchase ‘The Other Mrs. Smith’ (as well as ‘Psychiatry Disrupted’) to gain further insight.

  6. Certainly support your work Bonnie. Was put down for ECT, even signed my name to agree with it, so drug fucked-up ill was me.

    Just have to post this again from TRM123 the retired consultant. It is so sickening and would certainly plug a victim into being shocked down the mainline hell hole of psychiatry:

    “The work group also clarified that mania induced by treatment with antidepressant medication counts as a manic episode for the purpose of diagnosing bipolar I disorder.”

    http://jaapl.org/content/42/2/182#sec-9

    For those of you who do not know, the mania induced by AD’s is caused by not being able to metabolise the drugs correctly because we have a one size fits all drug system, but WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT phenotypes – strengths… expressions of – metabolising enzymes. People become toxic and a victim of psychiatry because of this. To boot, these phenotypes can be predicted with a decades old gene test that no one gets. The ‘doctors’ well know ALL this.

  7. I’ve always found ECT to be barbaric. What is especially concerning to me is how it’s being touted as a “new” type of ECT these days, and that it’s not as “invasive” as it was in earlier decades…I am very concerned for an acquaintance of mine in her thirties who has begun ECT recently because antidepressants were not helping her depression. She is like a cheerleader for ECT and I have to say I am deeply disturbed by her cheerleading. She is very successful in her work and attributes that to ECT…I am actually quite worried for her future and wellbeing…Anyway, I am very glad you are continuing to raise awareness about the dangers of ECT. Thank you for that.

  8. It is deeply upsetting that pro- ECT propaganists have been marketing an even more dangerous torture device, calling it new, modern, safe.
    Now that the California federal court has
    stated the evidence shows ECT causes brn dmg and cog impairment, are the media who touted shock in programs, (Anderson Cooper, Dr. Oz, The Doctors) going to retract their bullshit and tell the truth?

    • My understanding was that the court had only said there was a case to be made but I am still a bit confused about it. As for the media – my guess would be no they probably won’t retract. The story will remain the same – miracle treatment stigmatised and somehow the court case will be incorporated into the stigma.

  9. I agree that ECT (like many of Psychiatry’s “practices”) is barbaric. And I respect Connie’s decision to wage a hunger strike against it, especially given its place in “the protest tradition.”

    One thing that worries me about waging a hunger strong in the context of anti-*psychiatry is that the specific claim used by Psychiatry to justify its grotesquely abusive power – it’s “for the good of an incapable/mad/mentally ill underperson” – is that that same claim could be used to subvert the hunger striker’s act. In other words, if the ordinary hunger striker’s play is to claim the very last straw of power she can locate, that over her own life, those with greater power (such as Pscyhiatry-as-Institution) can use it to negate the striker’s power over her own life: they can force feed her, force her to live, and force her to live in tacit recognition of its (psychiatry’s) greater power. Of course this is less likely to happen “on the street” than in a carceral facility. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the “psychiatric police” were to show up, “notice” a woman “acting irrationally in such a way as to pose a danger to herself”, sign on the dotted line, and have the hunger striking woman carted off, locked up, and force fed.

    I took at a look at four different problematic contexts of “force feeding”, including hunger striking, in a video-paper, if you’re interested: https://youtu.be/laMYP9eBgP0.

    Again, I respect and appreciate Connie’s decision, and I would like to see her wage a successful campaign.

  10. Bonnie, what are you contacts with/in the UK- the Royal college just advertising a two day “training session” in London in late Nov. Yes, training more sheep to electrocute and brn dmg people, and 2 “expert” presenters- Chucky Kellner and Declan McLoughlen with lovely ties to Mecta.
    Anything in the form of protests being planned by Mind Freedom or Human Rights groups or anti-ECT groups?