For more than 25 years Harold Sackeim of Columbia University has been not only the top ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) researcher in the US, but the main proponent of the controversial treatment worldwide.
He taught a generation of ECT practitioners that “permanent amnesia from ECT is so rare that it could not be studied.” He also stated that people who said the treatment erased years of memory were mentally ill and thus not credible.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that more than 3 million people have received ECT just over the course of the last generation in the US alone.
It is entirely likely that ECT could not have survived as a ‘treatment’ over this same period without the calm and authoritative voice of Harold Sackeim assuring all, including the media and judicial and legislative bodies, that passing up to 420 volts through the brain of a human being was completely safe.
Then, in January 2007, the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology reported the results of the largest follow-up study ever done on ECT patients. Sackeim, lead author of the study, admits that the study conclusively demonstrates that ECT causes permanent amnesia and permanent deficits in cognitive abilities, which affect individuals’ ability to function:
“This study provides the first evidence in a large, prospective sample that adverse cognitive effects can persist for an extended period, and that they characterize routine treatment with ECT in community settings,”…
Doesn’t sound too bad put like that does it? See how it sounds when put into plain English: Brain Damage.
Oddly enough that accords with the American Journal of Psychiatry (1973) which stated: “the ECT patients’ inferior (test) performance does suggest that ECT causes permanent brain damage.”
Neurosurgeons agreed. Frank Vertosick equated ECT to repairing a computer with a chainsaw. Sidney Samant said that ECT produced effects identical to those of a head injury. John Friedberg said that ECT caused brain damage and memory loss.
Why then did psychiatrists continue to administer ECT for at least thirty-four years past the point where they knew it was causing brain damage, and why did society tolerate it? Because Harold Sackeim, the world famous ECT research expert, stated right up until January 2007 that ECT definitely didn’t cause brain damage.
Dr. John Read of the University of Auckland said: “This study proves what critics and recipients of shock therapies have been saying for years and shows that the Ministry of Health and the Royal College of Australian and New Zealand Psychiatrists have been misleading parliament and the public.”
The results of the study were picked up by news wires around the world. Sackeim’s admission, though long overdue and falling somewhat short of a full Mea Culpa, was still welcomed by those dedicated groups and individuals who have fought against this barbaric and primitive practice.
ECT has been around for almost 70 years now and has never been absent from controversy. Numerous websites detail harrowing stories of electro-shock induced brain damage by survivors and their families.
Articles were written and research papers published. Lobby groups were established. Survivors formed themselves into groups to protest their situation. There were even a very few courageous psychiatric insiders who blew the whistle.
Few listened. Fewer cared.
To be labeled as mentally ill is to be stigmatised. Open your mouth and people wonder whether you are making it up as you go along. Your every utterance has doubt cast upon it by virtue of the fact that you have been labeled ‘mentally ill’.
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Nothing that the ‘mentally ill’ person says or does can be taken in without it first being filtered through the perception that at best the person is incompetent and irrational and at worst violent.
These unspoken generalisations and perceptions though entirely erroneous are rife, especially in the media. While most people are uncomfortable with the idea of physical coercion, there is a tacit and convenient agreement that in the case of the mentally ill it is ‘probably in their own best interests”. Considerations of human rights are put aside because these people are ‘different’.
The forced application of ECT to millions of people ranks alongside the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. Coursing high voltage electricity through the brains of unwilling recipients was a blatant and barbaric disregard for human rights plain and simple. It happened because decent people chose to disregard the evidence of their own ears and eyes, not to say common sense, in favour of the soothing voice of experts like Harold Sackeim.
The lesson to be learned is that human rights are too important to be allowed to moulder in the bin of meaningless slogans. A genuine understanding and respect for human rights would have stopped involuntary ECT happening in the first place. Human rights must become widely and well known and to this end should be taught in schools. Do you, or any of your family or friends, know Article 1 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights — or any of the Articles?
Human rights are for all people at all times and under all circumstances. There are no exceptions and can never be any exceptions. If there are exceptions to human rights then such ‘Rights’ by definition degenerate to the status of ‘Privileges’.
It has now been revealed that the inspiration for Sackeim’s support of ECT for all those years was the fact that he was quietly on the payroll of Mecta Corporation, the manufacturer of ECT machines. Just as it was money that provided the quasi-legitimacy for ECT, so it was the highly profitable nature of ETC that kept psychiatrists enthusiastically pulling the switch. And now it will again be money, or more precisely the fear of losing money through litigation, that will bring about the end of the practice. Not remorse or pity, nor even common decency or respect for human rights, just money.
We are on the cusp of an avalanche of court cases on behalf of the recipients of ECT. No amount of money can ever compensate for the willful and unnecessary damage that has been done these people, or the indignities that they have had to suffer to even be listened to. There is also no price that compensates for the injustice and shame of having been legally defined as unworthy of human rights and, ipso facto, classified as less than human. Such court cases will though serve to focus attention on the importance of paying more than lip-service to human rights.
Genuine human rights for all can only be attained when our media realise that alongside their disseminative power comes an intellectual responsibility.
It is not just the media though. It is time for society at large to take a good hard look at itself. The truth is that we all knew what was happening; we all knew that it was completely wrong and yet very few did a damn thing about it. Why was that?
Possibly Ayn Rand explains the problem best: “The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see.”

Philip Barton 2008

Philip's blog is here
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