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the truth about electroconvulsive therapy

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Electroconvulsive Therapy: kind of conjures up images of sterile hospital rooms with old-world medical machinery attached to a helpless young woman strapped to a gurney. Well, sadly, if you pictured that image, you would have been pretty close to the truth. Electroconvulsive Therapy, otherwise known as ECT, was a form of treatment used primarily in the 1950s-1970s to rid people of their severe ‘mental illness’. I completed a study on ECT and its use on people in this era and found some startling facts and statistics about how many women were being subjected to this form of treatment in comparison to men.

 

In the well-known feminist-psychoanalytic text Women and Madness by Phyllis Chesler, the female clinician’s point of view is examined in relation to malpractice in therapy for women and the psychoanalytic study of the female mind and behaviour. A clinician herself, Chesler recounts that the membership of the American Psychiatric Association in the 1960s and 1970s increased to “17,298, of whom 14,267 were men and 1,691 were women” (Chesler, 2005 p.122). The sex was unknown for the remaining 1,340 psychiatrists on the memberships list for unspecified reasons. Regardless, even if those 1,340 remaining psychiatrists were women, the man to woman ratio is extremely disproportionate. What an insane number! This means that during those two decades 83 per cent of or more than four in five psychiatrists were men. Is it any wonder why women were being targeted and punished for trying to express any form of liberation?

 

Psychiatry is the most powerful of the mental professions in terms of status, money and creating and implementing psychiatric policies.

“Psychiatrists … decide who is insane and why;
what should be done to or for such people; and
when and if they should be released from treatment”
(Chesler, 2005 p.122).

It is undeniable that during this era male psychiatrists were making decisions on women’s mental health based on patriarchal ideologies and abusing their power by conducting violent treatments such as Electroconvulsive Therapy.
Oppression, according to Chesler’s main argument, is what breeds madness. This oppression was at its peak during the 1950s and 1960s when men were the predominant practicing psychiatrists in institutions, enforcing the notion that madness during this era was a side effect of patriarchal hegemony.

 

In the feminist view “therapy is not gender-neutral. It is based on patriarchal principles and supports a patriarchal and misogynistic culture” (Ussher, p.176 – 177). Undeniably, ECT was administered to both men and women in the 1950s as a method of diminishing depression, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness or ailments. However, women were the preferred candidates for the treatment.

 

The more I looked into ECT, the more shocked I was at the side effects and decrease in quality of life for those who underwent the treatment. Anything that alters your mental state through the passing of a significant electrical current through your head is bound to have some kind of lasting effects. Studies now clearly show that electroshock causes permanent brain damage and severe dysfunction (Sackheim, 2007). Many side effects reported include more than just a headache; symptoms include severe memory loss and losing major life events such as wedding days or children being born, seizures, black outs, increased depression, inability to function and withdrawal from society. ECT has been shown to cause “severe and irreversible brain neuropathology including cell death. It can wipe out vast amounts of retrograde memory while producing permanent cognitive dysfunction” (Breggin, 1998 p. 27). This means the cells in the brain have died off at a rapid rate, resulting in permanent memory loss of prior events in the subject’s life. It is this memory loss and loss of identity that then usually draws the recipient back into a deeper state of depression.

 

You would think that the horrifying history of ECT couldn’t get much worse. But let’s dig a little deeper. ECT statistics have shown that “throughout the history of ECT’s popular use, one statistic remains constant. Women are subjected to electroshock two to three times as often as men” (Burstow, p.378). It is also notable that “approximately 95% of all shock doctors are male” (Burstow, p.378). Women’s higher susceptibility to depression than men “most probably lies in a combination of biological, genetic, psychological and social factors” (NAMI, 2013 p.1); this does not, however, excuse the power relationships demonstrated through the violent treatment of ECT. In Burstow’s article regarding ECT and women, she states:

“Although the medicalization camouflages the assault, overwhelmingly
electroshock constitutes an assault on women’s memory, brains, integral
being. And this being the case, electroshock may be meaningfully theorized as a form of violence against women [sic]” (Burstow, p.379).

This correlates with the research in Chesler’s Women and Madness that men were predominantly the giver of ECT and women were forced to submit to this power play.
The shocking reality about ECT is that contrary to what many people believe, it is still practiced in some Australian hospitals today. Mind you, they keep it on the down low and the procedure is much more controlled than it was in the 1950s, but this form of treatment still exists. I have spoken to people with relatives who have had the procedure and the side effects are still much the same as they were those many decades ago. Black outs, loss of memory and severe headaches. One person even recalled the headaches being so bad they would stay in bed for three days after the treatment.

 

People have their reasons for voluntarily undergoing ECT in today’s society where the side effects and research are available to anyone who does a simple Google search. In light of the statistics, the history and the origins of a treatment based on patriarchal ideologies, I think many will be opting for different methods such as counseling, meditation or professional medical help.

 

References:
Breggin, P.R 2007, ‘ECT Damages the Brain: Disturbing News for Patients and Shock Doctors Alike’, in Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 9, No.2
Burstow, B 2006, ‘Electroshock as a Form of Violence Against Women’, in Violence Against Women, Vol. 12, No.4

Chesler, P 2005, Women and Madness, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness 2013, Women and Depression, Author, Vancouver.

Sackheim, H 2007, ‘The Cognitive Effects of Electroconvulsive Therapy in Community Settings’, in Neuropsychopharmacology, Vol. 32.

Ussher, J.M 1991, Women’s Madness, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hertfordshire.

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