Why Is Electroshock ‘Therapy’ Still a Mainstay of Psychiatry?


From Aeon: “In the early 1970s, I was a naive 21-year-old, in love with my first job since graduating university, as a nursing aide on a psychiatric ward in New York. Three times a week, a row of older women would sit in a line against the wall in the corridor. Some were slumped motionless in their chairs. Others seemed scared and agitated. Occasionally, one would try to run off and was brought back to the chair by kind but firm staff. When I found out that they were waiting for ‘electroshock’, I volunteered for the job of sitting with them as they came round from the general anaesthetic, after the electric shock and the seizure. They would ask me: ‘Where am I?’ ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why is my head pounding?’ and ‘What did they do to me?’ I remember being unable to answer the old lady who asked me, in tears: ‘Why would they do such a thing to me?’ . . .

The most common response I get when mentioning shock therapy beyond mental health circles is: ‘Are we seriously still doing that?’ To grasp the persistence of this treatment, you need to go back in time. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) joins a long tradition of applying extreme physical procedures to distressed or distressing people: harsh laxatives, bloodletting, blistering of the forehead, rotating chairs, surprise baths, being packed in ice, inoculation of scabies, force-feeding chimney soot and wood lice and, briefly at the beginning of the 20th century in the US, surgically removing teeth, testicles, ovaries, gall bladders and colons. The 20th century witnessed malaria-induced fevers, insulin-induced comas and a range of ‘psychosurgery’ procedures including hammering an ice-pick-shaped instrument into the brain via the eye socket (‘prefrontal leucotomy’) and insertion of radioactive yttrium (Y90) into the brain (‘subcaudate tractotomy’) . . .

In Hungary in 1934, the psychiatrist Ladislas Meduna induced seizures in patients by injecting camphor and metrazol. After giving his first injection, Meduna ‘was so distressed he had to be supported to his room by nurses’, according to researchers. Meanwhile in Italy, the neurologist Ugo Cerletti was giving electricity a go. He experimented first with dogs, placing electrodes in their mouths and rectum. Many died. He discovered a way to bypass the heart, at a slaughterhouse:

The hogs were clamped at the temples with big metallic tongs which were hooked up to an electric current (125 volts) … they fell unconscious, stiffened, then after a few seconds they were shaken by convulsions in the same way as our experimental dogs … I felt we could venture to experiment on man.

His first human subject was a 39-year-old engineer from Milan, whom the police found wandering around a Rome train station in a confused state. When the first electric shock failed to produce the desired convulsion, Cerletti and his assistant discussed whether to administer a more powerful shock. Cerletti reported:

All at once, the patient, who evidently had been following our conversation, said clearly and solemnly, without his usual gibberish: ‘Not another one! It’s deadly!’

Cerletti proceeded anyway, in the first of the millions of instances that were to follow, and which continue today, of people being given this treatment despite clearly stating they don’t want it. After another, larger electric shock, which did produce a convulsion, the engineer couldn’t recall being shocked; the first of millions of instances of the short-term memory loss caused by this treatment.

Like Meduna before him, Cerletti wasn’t insensitive to the effects of what he was doing on the person in front of him:

When I saw the patient’s reaction I thought to myself: this ought to be abolished! Ever since I have looked forward to the time when another treatment would replace electroshock.

I had a similar reaction to Meduna’s and Cerletti’s when, at that New York hospital, I witnessed my first ECT, along with some medical students. When the psychiatrist asked: ‘Would anyone like to press the button?’, the five other young men were all keen. Having watched the woman convulse and then become limp, I wheeled her unconscious body back down the corridor, not a very reassuring sight for the queue. I ended up in the car park, throwing up. Even before knowing what the research says about ECT, I’d had, quite literally, a gut reaction that something was dreadfully wrong. But to understand why ECT still happens today, remember that the five medical students either didn’t share my revulsion or, perhaps, chose to conceal it from their teacher.”

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  1. ECT fixes “brain” “chemicals”. Oh wait, that is what “Anti depressants” do.

    I guess it must be difficult to decide between all the harmful “treatments”. No I’m not at ALL surprised ‘
    that the majority of shockers and dealers are not upset or repulsed. There is not much beyond a body there for them. A body without a person in it. The person part has no meaning. It is a very antisocial act to do harm to people. But there are a lot of social jobs for those who are antisocial.

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    • According to psychiatry “mentally ill” people have defective brains and are so dangerous they need less rights than criminals. They lack insight and are too stupid to know what’s good. Psychiatry questionnaires used in their “research” consider complaints as signs of mental illness. It isn’t not surprising psychiatrists are not mortified at subhuman treatment towards. They flat out say their “patients” are less human than criminals and are so defective their complaints are just symptoms of their “mental illness”. Psychiatry does wonder why there is so much stigma and discrimination and hope to solve it by informing more people that they are mentally defective and need electroshock/drugs.

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    • According to psychiatry If a “mental patient” disagrees with psychiatry it is a symptom of their illness and requires more shock or drugs. If a mental patient reports and complains about a drug effect it is also a symptom of their mental illness and requires more drug. That’s why people are on both a tranquilizer or sedative and a stimulant type drug. One way to survive in psychiatry is to lie and say you are doing great. Otherwise you get more drugs and shocks. Interesting how it conditions people to silence and social withdrawal. Though given many early psych drug case reports remark how the patient becomes docile, sedated and cooperative, silencing people seems to be a feature instead of a bug.

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  2. I wish I’d had the knowledge that I have now about psychiatry 15 years ago, when I consented to ECT as a fix for my “treatment resistant depression”. After the last in a course of 10 or 12 ECT treatments, when I was suffering from severe short term memory deficits that were a direct result of ECT (prior to my consenting to the treatment, the psychiatrist assured me that memory loss was a very rare side effect of ECT, that none of his ECT patients had ever suffered memory loss), I had a short appointment with the doctor in his office, where he laid the following on me:. “You have borderline personality disorder. That’s why the ECT didn’t work. You need dialectical behavior therapy.”
    He didn’t offer any explanation beyond that and his tone and demeanor made clear that he was not open to questions from me. I went home and looked everything up online because I had never heard of borderline personality disorder or dialectical behavior therapy before. That day was the beginning of 15 years of hell.

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  3. Szasz writes — probably in The myth of mental illness — that psychiatric ‘treatment’ is deliberately inflicted brain damage. drugs, shock, operations, what have you…brain damage is -the core- of ‘somatic treatments’ in psychiatry.

    factor in medicare payouts for elderly ladies, the money to be made by everyone involved in the ‘treatment team,’ and the short-term ‘benefits’ (read: confused, compliant people…perfect, by psych standards…), and it becomes abundantly clear that psychiatry is psychiatry is psychiatry…

    and psychiatry cannot be reformed; it must be abolished (again, Szasz). 🙂

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  4. ETC is hanging around the same way muzzle loading artillery did. The technology of the first half of the 19th Century wasn’t developed enough to develop a breech strong enough to handle the explosive burst of artillery propellant without disintegrating the gun.

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