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Psychiatry's 'Shock Doctrine': Are We Really OK With Electroshocking Toddlers?

Many Americans think electroconvulsive therapy has been abandoned. But American psychiatry still regards it as a respected treatment, even for kids.
 
 
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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 children.

On Jan. 25, 2009, the Herald Sun in Melbourne, Australia, reported: "Children younger than 4 who are considered mentally disturbed are being treated with controversial electric shock treatment." In Australia, the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is increasing, and the Herald Sun's report on "Child Shock Therapy" stated that last year, "statistics record 203 ECT treatments on children younger than 14 -- including 55 aged 4 and younger."

Many Americans think that ECT has gone the way of bloodletting, but it continues to be regarded by American psychiatry as a respected treatment, especially for patients who are "treatment resistant" to drugs. Although ECT for young children is nowhere near as common as for adults, most U.S. states do not prohibit ECT for kids. California prohibits ECT for children under the age of 12 but allows children between 12 and 15 to receive ECT if three psychiatrists are in favor of it.

You might think that before any child receives a series of 70 to 170 volts of brain zappings and is thrown into seizures, every other non-traumatic therapy would have been attempted. You might think that before using ECT, in addition to trying every type of psychotherapy, there would also be an exhaustive effort to find a therapist with whom a kid might genuinely connect. You might think all this, but you would be wrong. It is not unusual for psychiatrists to simply 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 when Kitty 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 more pleasant to observe. Patients are administered an anesthetic and a muscle 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 scientific reality is that for all of these techniques, without evidence of any brain malignancy, the brain is damaged. Neurologist Sidney Sament describes the process:

"After a few sessions of ECT, the symptoms are those of moderate cerebral contusions ... Electroconvulsive therapy in effect may be defined as a controlled type of brain damage produced by electrical means ... In all cases, the ECT ‘response' is due to the concussion-type, or more serious, effect of ECT. The patient 'forgets' his symptoms because the brain damage destroys memory traces in the brain, and the patient has to pay for this by a reduction in mental capacity of varying degree."

In January 2007, the journal Neuropsychopharmacology published 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 "pronounced slowing of reaction time" and "persisting retrograde amnesia" (the inability to recall events that occurred before the traumatic event) that continue six months after treatment.

While ECT proponents admit to collateral damage, especially memory loss, they claim that it is an effective treatment. However, a Kitty Dukakis testimonial is not exactly science. With respect to preventing suicide, 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 prevented suicide in hospitalized patients."