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In this article for the Huffington Post, Bruce Levine explores the ethics of subjecting children to ECT.

“Are We Really Okay with Electroshocking Toddlers?”

Date Published:

Jan 29, 2009 07:00 PM

Author: Bruce Levine

Source: Huffington Post

For the original article, please click here.

“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” — C.S. Lewis

Psychiatry’s “shock doctrine” is quite literally electroshock, and its latest victims are – I’m not kidding – young


On January 25, 2009, the Herald Sun, based in Melbourne,Australia, reported, “Children younger than four

who are consideredmentally disturbed are being treated with controversial electric shocktreatment.” In

Australia, the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) isincreasing, and the Herald Sun’s report on “Child Shock

Therapy” stated that last year “statistics record 203 ECT treatments onchildren younger than 14 — including

55 aged four and younger.”

Many Americans think that ECT has gone the way of bloodletting, butit continues to be regarded by

American psychiatry as a respectedtreatment, especially for patients who are “treatment resistant” todrugs.

Though ECT for young children is nowhere near as common as foradults, most states in the U.S. do not

prohibit ECT for kids.California does prohibit ECT for children under the age of 12 butallows children

between 12 and 15 to receive ECT if three psychiatristsare in favor of it.

You might think that before any child receives a series of 70 to 170volts of brain zappings and is thrown

into epilepsy-like seizures,every other nontraumatic therapy would have been attempted. You mightthink

that before using ECT, in addition to trying every type ofpsychotherapy, there would also be an exhaustive

effort to find atherapist with whom a kid might genuinely connect. You might think allthis, but you would be


It is not unusual for psychiatrists tosimply prescribe one drug, then another drug, then several drug

combinations (called “cocktails”), and if those fail, recommend ECT. The disproportionate use of ECT on

women, especially older women,once made it a feminist issue, but I heard no feminist opposition whenKitty

Dukakis recently came out positively about her own ECT.Psychiatry is well aware of its historical bad press

about ECT,including Sylvia Plath’s nightmarish ordeal, so today ECT is far morepleasant to observe. Patients

are administered an anesthetic and amuscle relaxant prior to ECT so they don’t writhe in agony as seizures

are induced. However, the effects on the brain have not changed. There are various modern ECT techniques.

However, the scientificreality is that for all of these techniques, without evidence of anybrain malignancy, the

brain is damaged. Neurologist Sidney Samentdescribes the process:

“After a few sessions of ECT the symptoms are those of moderatecerebral contusions . . . Electroconvulsive therapy in effect may bedefined as a controlled type of brain damage produced by electricalmeans . . . In all cases the ECT ‘response’ is due to theconcussion-type, or more serious, effect of ECT. The patient ‘forgets’his symptoms because the brain damage destroys memory traces in thebrain, and the patient has to pay for this by a reduction in mentalcapacity of varying degree.”

In January 2007, the journal Neuropsychopharmacologypublished an article about a large-scale study on the

cognitive effects(immediately and six months later) of currently used ECT techniques.The researchers found

that modern ECT techniques produce “pronouncedslowing of reaction time” and “persisting retrograde

amnesia” (theinability to recall events that occurred before the traumatic event)that continue six months after


While ECT proponents admit to collateral damage, especially memoryloss, they claim that it is an effective

treatment. However, a KittyDukakis testimonial is not exactly science. With respect to preventingsuicide, the

Journal of Affective Disorders in 1999(“Retrospective Controlled Study of Inpatient ECT: Does it Prevent

Suicide?”) reported, “We failed to demonstrate that ECT had preventedsuicide in hospitalized patients.”

Longtime ECT critic, psychiatristPeter Breggin, in the International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicinein 1998

(“Electroshock: Scientific, Ethical, and Political Issues”),reported that at establishment psychiatry’s “Consensus

Conference onECT” in 1985, ECT advocates were unable to come forth with onecontrolled study showing

that ECT had any positive effect beyond fourweeks, and that many other ECT studies showed that it had no

positiveeffect at all. The heretical Breggin added, “That ECT had no positiveeffect after four weeks confirms

the brain-disabling principle, sincefour weeks is the approximate time for significant recovery from themost

obvious mind-numbing or euphoric effects of the ECT-induced acuteorganic brain syndrome.” Breggin’s

“brain-disabling principle” is thateven when ECT does “work,” it works only temporarily — the same waythat

a blow by a sledgehammer or an acid trip might temporarilydisconnect one from the reality of one’s life and

the sources of one’semotional pain.

Psychiatry will always find celebrities such as Kitty Dukakis whoswear by ECT, but the American public

rarely hears about thosecelebrities who have cursed their ECT. In Papa Hemingway, A.E. Hotchner recounts

the sad end to Ernest Hemingway’s life. Hemingwaybecame extremely depressed, was medicated and

ultimately given ECT; buthe became even more depressed and complained about the effects of the

electroshock, “Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasingmy memory, which is my capital, and

putting me out of business?” In1961, after a second series of ECT, Hemingway used his shotgun tocommit


If you feel sorry for Hemingway, then what kind of emotionalreaction do you have upon discovering that

last year 203 Australianchildren — including 55 aged four and younger — received ECT?

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D
., is a clinical psychologist and author of
Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).