In this article for the Huffington Post, Bruce Levine explores the ethics of subjecting children to ECT.
“Are We Really Okay with Electroshocking Toddlers?”
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).