Comments by Peter Breggin, MD

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  • For Bonnie Burstow

    From Peter Breggin

    It seems impossible to believe that I last saw Bonnie live, but not in person, on November 27, 2019—a mere 40 days before Stephen Ticktin told me of her death. I saw her as my honored guest on my radio/TV show. You can see her now forever on YouTube, perhaps her last public appearance, along with two of her dear friends, Stephen and Oriel Varga, and myself. We had a wonderful show titled “United Against Psychiatric Abuse.” And we were united!! Bonnie was an active participant with no hint that she might not be with us much longer.

    I have known and worked with Bonnie for so long that I don’t know how long. Almost five decades? I think of Don Weitz, another great Toronto activist. Or Leonard Frank from San Francisco who is now gone. Back to the earliest days of the movement in the 1970s, it seems I’ve known Bonnie that long.

    Bonnie was such an enormously creative human being. A pioneer in psychiatric reform. A scientist. A novelist. A teacher, intellectual and academician. A writer and performer of plays. Of course, a friend.

    The Yiddish word chutzpah—audacity with a flare. Who else would even have imagined gaining acceptance for a scholarship in “Antipsychiatry” at a major international university? Who else could possibly have carried it off? I remember when she first invited me to back her effort. I thought it was merely a fun way of sticking it to them. It turned out to be much more than that. It turned out to be real! People are working toward PhDs on Antipsychiatry Scholarships!

    Chutzpah does not really capture how I knew and remember Bonnie. She was more about seriousness. Dr. Bonnie Burstow was one of the most serious people I ever met. She had intention. She had purpose. She had goals. And she accomplished so many of them. And she did it with righteous anger.

    Bonnie, I’m glad I saw and worked with you, so very recently, if only connected by video Skype. It leaves me with a good feeling that we worked together until the very end. Thank you for that, and all the other shared moments over the past decades.

    Lots of love, my friend, and goodbye


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  • Peter Breggin responds:
    In her commentary above, Katie Higgins defended psychiatrist David Healy against my observation that he has a positive view of intensive or regressive ECT. She reported in her comment that she phoned Dr. Healy and that he told her, “I have never advocated intensive ECT in my life and nowhere in the book is there support for this.” He is referring to his book, Shock Therapy (2007), which he coauthored with Edward Shorter, another very strong advocate of ECT. I have no knowledge about whether Healy has every participated in or recommended intensive ECT; but his book clearly tries to support the practice.
    Before examining their descriptions of intensive ECT, it is important to note that Shorter and Healy make statements like “We will show that the charge of brain damage from ECT is an urban myth” (p. 3) and “In informed circles, serious memory loss has seldom been considered real” (p. 111). Their discussion of intensive ECT is preceded by this statement: “The half-century-old myth about ECT and brain damage has been pushed decisively back into its tomb” (p. 135). Then Shorter and Healy launch into discussing the positive effects of intensive or regressive ECT (pp. 136-140). Their analysis includes the infamous “research” work of child psychiatrist Lauretta Bender:

    “Lauretta Bender at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, the founder of the study of childhood schizophrenia in the United States, reported in 1947 that over the previous five years her Children’s Ward of the Bellevue Psychiatric Division had administered daily [ECT] treatments to some ninety-eight children ages four to eleven for a typical course of about twenty treatments. Although the basic illness had not been relieved, the children had become much more sociable, composed, and able to integrate in group therapy as a result of the daily ECT.” P. 137

    Shorter and Healy are describing exactly the treatment that Bender inflicted on Ted Chabasinski at age six. Instead of condemning it, Healy’s book declares that intensive ECT improved the social abilities of the children.
    In an entirely separate chapter, which was not focused on intensive ECT, Shorter and Healy once again bring up Bender, this time sort of admitting that her treatment was controversial—but in no way condemning it:

    “ECT for children as young as three or four had been pioneered by Lauretta Bender in New York. In her view, children might experience various symptoms characteristic of the prodromes of schizophrenia, and just as children now will be put on methylphenidate or other stimulant drugs in a manner that may well appear extraordinary in decades to come, children then were treated enthusiastically with ECT by some practitioners.” Pp. 197-198

    Notice that Bender is called a “pioneer”—not a child abuser or Mengele—for shocking three year olds. Notice that Healy brings up her discredited idea that children like Ted had “prodromes of schizophrenia” without challenging it. Notice that Healy imagines that Bender’s ECT “may well appear extraordinary in decades to come.” “Extraordinary” is hardly the word to characterize Bender’s atrocities. In fact, this comparison to treating children with stimulants is not intended to show how bad ECT is (Healy does not think it is bad to give stimulants to children); it is to show how Bender was just one more controversial “pioneer.”
    Returning to the chapter on intensive ECT and the main discussion of Bender, in the paragraph that follows the one claiming social improvement for the children, Shorter and Healy go on to say that Bender’s treatment was “timid” compared to other intensive ECT projects:

    “These early attempts at intensive ECT appear timid, however in comparison with what came later. W. Liddell Milligan, a staff psychiatrist at St. James Hospital in Portsmouth, England began using “the intensive method” in 1941, giving patients up to four treatments a day. “In some cases it is necessary to reduce the patient to the infantile level, in which he is completely helpless and doubly incontinent.” They employed intensive ECT for “psychoneuroses,” at least those serious enough to warrant hospitalization, and claimed excellent results without sustained memory loss. Milligan is considered the initiator of regressive ECT, even though he did not use the term.” (p.137)

    In the above quote, having described this horrendously destructive treatment, Shorter and Healy offer no outrage at this brain-damaging assault on the brain, mind and spirit. Instead, they embrace the obviously false statement that destroying a patient’s mental function to the point of infantile helplessness resulted in “excellent results without sustained memory loss.” Throughout his book, Healy’s major contention is that no form of ECT causes serious injury, not even significant lasting memory loss. In this historically oriented book, the authors seem to want to give Milligan credit as the inventor of regressive ECT. It is called regressive because the aim was to “regress” the patient into a state of neurological collapse and helpless infantile behavior.
    The book continues with several more paragraphs about intensive ECT inflicted on various victims from hospitalized women diagnosed with “tension” to prisoners at Sing Sing in New York. They describe one particularly horrendous example of “regressive ECT:”

    “The patients became confused, could not take care of their physical needs, and had to be spoon-fed. As soon as the treatment was stopped the patients “returned toward their chronological ages levels,’ their behavior “essentially normal and symptom free.” In other words, the circumstances of the entire thing were ghastly, yet the treatment seemed to work on patients who otherwise would have been candidates for lobotomy” P. 138

    It defies explanation why Healy and Shorter would believe, and not challenge, the assertion that these patients became “essentially normal and symptom free.” The fact that some doctors might have gone further and lobotomized these patients is no justification for torturing them with ECT. Instead, Healy should have rejected both intensive ECT and the lobotomy as an inhumane, violent assault on helpless human beings.
    These lengthy, positive analyses of the most extreme form of ECT seems incompatible with Healy’s reported defense that “I have never advocated intensive ECT in my life and nowhere in the book is there support for this.”

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