On Electroconvulsive Treatment (ECT) – “The treatment is analogous to attempting to mend a faulty radio by kicking it, or a broken computer by cutting out a few of its circuits”… (Steven Rose – “Where Brains Fail: Madness and Mysticism” in The Conscious Brain – 1976)
One of the most depressing sights that I have witnessed that has been indelibly printed on my mind was “shadowing” two mental health advocates nearly 20 years ago was in a Mother and Baby Unit. I have never forgot it. It shocked me. Upset me too. There a number of women in this Unit all resembling zombies. One woman sat holding her baby totally disconnected from the child.. Another woman asked me to the postcard she had received, she was upset as the words seemed a jumble to her. I read it to her. Her eyes were vacant and behaviour confused. One of the advocates asked her how many applications of ECT she had received during the week. She couldn’t remember. These women had a diagnosis of post-natal depression.
The wisdom from the shrinks in treating this was prescribing chemical coshes to the women who bottled fed their babies and ECT to the women who breast-fed their babies. Another local hospital also had a Mother and Baby Unit with women who had been diagnosed with post-natal depression yet the treatment seemed much more enlightened. This particular Mother and Baby Unit connected to the psychiatric hospital was in the middle of nowhere and inaccessible by public transport, many of these women were working class. So many didn’t get regular visitors. All of these women seemed so emotionally vacant. Their eyes were expressionless. It really scared me. I left the Unit, numb with shock, got home and lay on my bed feeling awful as I had this crushing migraine, I felt sick. Physically too. Thinking how wrong and inhuman it was to treat these women and their babies. I never forgot it.
I have always been against ECT and believe it should be banned. I know far too many people whose memories have been shoot to pieces by the shock to the brain. Some years before I encountered ECT, a man in the same psych day hospital as me would be wheeled away in the afternoons. I asked one of the women where he was going.
“To have his ECT”…
He would come back looking confused, befuddled and not remembering much. The same woman told me that the shrink had explained that if they couldn’t get her meds and dosages correct then they would be considering ECT… She dreaded it. So she started to tell the shrink that the meds were working as ECT frightened the hell out of her. I did wonder if they would try it with me as I too was having problems with all the different kinds of chemical coshes lobbed at me. Psychiatry… don’cha love it… lets not think about the efficacy of drugs lets just hand them out like it’s the pick ‘n mix counter at Woollies… trial and error… and sod the side-effects.
How does ECT work?
Well, even the Royal College of Psychiatrists aint got a clue. Lots of theories. Little evidence.
No-one is certain how ECT works, and there are a number of theories.
It can change patterns of blood flow through the brain. It can change the metabolism of areas of the brain which may be affected by depression. Many doctors believe that severe depression is caused by problems with certain brain chemicals. It is thought that ECT causes the release of these chemicals and, probably more importantly, makes the chemicals more likely to work and so help recovery.
Recent research has suggested that ECT can stimulate the growth of new cells and nerve pathways in certain areas of the brain.
The ‘therapeutic’” use of producing seizures came about after various experiments on pigs and dogs during 1930s/40s by Italian neuropsychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini.
When the Italian psychiatrist, Ugo Cerletti, first developed the electric shock apparatus in the 1930s, he recognised that its main effect was to produce brain damage. Later in life he admitted that the idea of “submitting a man to convulsant electric discharges was barbaric and dangerous”, adding that “in everyone’s mind was the spectre of the electric chair”.
Early use of shock treatment could bring about broken bones as the convulsions could be very severe hence the use of muscle relaxants and anesthesia. But it could never detract when the horrifying realities of ECT. And who can forget One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (supporters of ECT blame that film for creating a damaging image). Shock treatment is shock treatment. Shocking. Experiences of ECT has appeared in literature whether Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or the work of Janet Frame who likened ECT to being given a cake laced with arsenic because it’s “good for you”… Frame had around 200 applications of ECT while an in-patient in a hospital in New Zealand during the fifties. She only got a reprieve from having a lobotomy when one of the doctors read her poetry!
There are people who say they benefited from ECT. But equally there are people who have had terrible experiences from ECT such as Pat Butterfield who set up ECT Anonymous in the late 1999s (and I was a supporter of). How much information are people given about ECT? People are still prescribed ECT and hunting down stats isn’t easy.
So why am I writing about ECT…? Due to the Newsnight article yesterday. Again, it’s about resurrecting the well-it-looks-like-it-could-work-but-we-aint-sure hypothesis. One of the many reasons I believe ECT should be banned is that it is reductionist and deterministic, we are reduced to the functioning of brains and it combines very well with the medical model of psychiatry, which is rooted in political ideology.
As leftie shrink Phil Thomas argues:
We can choose to look at another human being as an object determined by physical laws, or as a person like but apart from ourselves, with fears, terror, hope, and in need of human comfort and care. Setting philosophical arguments aside, the clearest evidence that a neuroscientific psychiatry is seriously off track has been the rise of the survivor, service user, c/s/x, or ervaringsdeskundigen. The work of organisations like the Hearing Voices Network and the Icarus Project is proof of the sterility and lack of humanity of science-dominated psychiatry. We have a great deal to learn from this, most of all about the importance of supportive and caring human relationships in helping people who experience madness and distress.
Many people liken ECT to torture and call for it to be banned.
Clinical psychologist Dr Lucy Johnstone, and a study by the Mental Health Foundation in London says that ECT appears to affect patients in much the same way as any brain injury.
“Shock damages the brain,” they say, “causing memory loss and disorientation that creates an illusion that problems are gone, and euphoria, which is a frequently observed result of brain injury.”