- Mental Health
Electric Shock Treatment For Mental Illness-Therapy Or Torture?
Shocked By 220 Volts
Treatment or Torture?
Electro Shock therapy has been used to treat mental illness since 1938.This treatment, ECT, was introduced as effective for psychiatric disorders and illnesses. These include depression and catatonia. The medical term is Electroconvulsive Therapy and scientists still do not really know how or if it really works. The concept of shooting 220 volts of electricity through a human being is horrible, something a sadist might think of. The average home is supplied with 220 volts of electric service.
ECT was developed by Ugo Cerletti who thought electricity would induce seizures quickly. He experimented on dogs and observed pigs being stunned with electricity before slaughter and determined that electricity would indeed induce a fit. The experiments continued until 1938 when they found a man in a railway station and used him as a human guinea pig. He was held and subjected to shocks until after 10 treatments they deemed him in good condition and released him. The man begged them to stop after the first time saying “it is murderous” and it surely must have felt that way.
When introduced, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) was performed without the use of sedatives or pain medication of any sort. Later as accepted use grew, camphor and pentylenetetrazol were used in conjunction with the shock therapy. Pentylenetetrazol is actually a stimulant to the circulatory and respiratory system and caused seizures by itself. So the use along with the shock must have been excruciating. Discovery of the side effects of these drugs were known as early as 1938 but use of Pentylenetetrazol was not banned until 1982.
Electro Shock treatment was widely used by practitioners until the 1960s. Many drugs were discovered, approved and released at that time and showed great promise in controlling depression, manic depression and schizophrenia. The use of Electro Shock Therapy (ECT) was largely replaced by drug therapy although ECT is still used today.
In the beginning of ECT use, many patients suffered from convulsions, impaired mental function and even bone fractures caused by muscle contractions and other injuries caused by the seizure. The practice of ECT continues today but is controlled and the patient is put to sleep and awakens afterward. Patient chart reflect twitching of the extremities and because muscle relaxants are used, the dose of electricity is increased to induce a seizure.
That was not the case for many years. Thousands suffered cardiac arrest and died on the table. Others were so disoriented they could not walk or use their upper body muscles effectively for years afterward. Even more suffered brain damage to such a degree that they never lived independently again. Many were described by their families as “like a zombie” and almost all were left with memory loss. One woman, a young mother at the time, cannot remember an entire year of her daughter’s life.
The horror of this treatment lives on through the words of many who were subjected to it. ECT was widely accepted and even influential people thought it would help and underwent the procedure.
Well known author and poet Sylvia Plath received ECT and described it in her famous novel The Bell Jar. ''Don't worry,' the nurse grinned down at me. 'Their first time, everybody's scared to death.' 'I tried to smile, but my skin had gone stiff, like parchment. Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite.
'I shut my eyes. There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath. Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant. 'I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.'”
Writer Ernest Hemingway was treated with ECT for his chronic depression. He was left with memory loss and could not bear it. He committed suicide by shooting himself. He had stated the memory loss that resulted as a side effect of ECT was “ruining his head” and “putting himself out of business”. He was right of course. A writer must have exceptional recollection and retention.
Another famous person to undergo ECT was actress Vivien Leigh of Gone With The Wind fame. She had been diagnosed with manic depression and was prescribed shock treatments to relieve the depression. At the time Ms. Leigh was married to another famous actor Laurence Olivier who said she was never the same again. She had noticeable personality changes and he said “She was not the same girl I had fallen in love with.”
One person close to me when I was a child endured ECT and her fear of having it repeated caused her to tremble at the mention of a hospital. She would break down in sobs and run from the house to hide in the woods. Her depression never improved but grew worse as the years passed and she suffered from memory loss the rest of her life.
ECT has been used on pregnant women (and still is today). So the developing brain of the baby has 220 volts of electricity run through it. Supposedly, this is safe. The lady mentioned was expecting when she was treated with ECT. Her child was born premature, never grew to a normal size and suffers from speech impairment even now.
As late as 1999, ECT was recommended for use with and without patient consent. A doctor at Judge Rotenberg Educational Center has begun using electric shock treatment on autistic children. Their consent is not needed and could not be given anyway as they are not of age. The center insists the results are positive and the treatment works. Some are as young as six years old. The child has electrodes attached to the legs, arms and torso and electric shock is applied. The children must think they are being punished and I wonder what their mental and emotional state will become for the remainder of their life. The Dr. Israel says there are no side effects and the painful experience is temporary and over in seconds. Interestingly, he owns patent on the machine used to administer the treatment to the children.
In July of 2009 an eight year old boy was treated with ECT three times a week for five weeks Kennedy Krieger Institute, John Hopkins School of Medicine. He was declared improved of the desire to harm himself and sent home.
This painful and debilitating practice of legal torture cannot continue to gain acceptance. Any supposed benefit certainly has not been shown to outweigh the cost to the person subjected to this procedure. It is called therapy. I say it should be called torture.