By Eastgate, Jan | USA TODAY, November 1998 | Go to article overview


Eastgate, Jan, USA TODAY

It never is called shock treatment--at lest by those who profit from the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The words "electric shock" carry too many threatening connotations. Described by many as inhumane, electroshock "treatment" first was used to render slaughterhouse pigs unconscious to make it easier to slit their throats.

In 1938, Italian psychiatrist Ugo Cerletti decided to try this procedure on humans. The first guinea pig left no doubt as to how he felt about hundreds of volts of electricity sending a current searing through his brain. When he realized Cerletti planned another dose, he screamed, "Not another one! It's deadly."

Today, psychiatrist have reason to thank Cerletti for a financial blessings that has showered them with riches at the press of a button. The entire procedure takes just minutes to administer and reaps about $3,000,000,000 a year for the psychiatric industry.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has estimated tat more than 88,000 people are given electroshock each year in the U.S. However, this is based on statistics that are more than 15 years old. It would seem that psychiatrists have no desire to monitor their systematic social crippling of tens of thousands of people annually. Newspaper articles in 1993, for instance, put the number of Americans undergoing ECT each year as high as 110,000.

How did electroshock, with no history of ever having done anybody any good, become accepted in countries like the U.S. with "authoritative" recognition? How was it that, as ECT continued to be used, the procedure became "standard practice"?

In a 1992 paper, "The Introduction and Spread of Shock Treatment and the Emigration of Psychiatrists," physicians credited Germany with the exportation of shock and its practitioners around the world. One of the psychiatrists cited in this paper is Lothar B. Kalinowsky, an honorary member of the German Society for Psychiatry and Neurology.

A student of Cerletti, Kalinowsky developed his own electroshock machine and introduced his method to France, Holland, and England in 1938, later pioneering it in the U.S. Austrian-born psychiatrist Leo T. Alexander, who trained in Germany before moving to the U.S. in 1934, was an advocate of ECT as well.

By the 1940s, the devastating effects of electroshock were undeniable. At least 20% of ECT patients suffered fractures of the vertebrate from the violent convulsions it caused. During a 1941 meeting of psychiatrists, Roy Grinker said, "I think it can be states unequivocally that [shock] is fraught with extreme danger ... Careful studies by means of a battery of psychological test reveal a definite `organic' change in memory which does not entirely clear up.... Often the so-called normal alpha rhythm increases greatly in voltage, making one suspicious that irreparable damage to the brain has bee produced."

Despite the warning, psychiatrists employed it as a "quick fix" for all manner of conditions. Some simply overlooked the devastating complications. Others called them essential to the "curative process." Take, for example, Abraham Myerson, who said in 1942, "The reduction of intelligence is an important factor in the curative process.... The fact is that some of the very best cures that one gets are in those individuals whom one gets are almost to amentia [feeble-mindedness]...."

During World War II, German psychiatrists had other uses for electroshock. Between 1939 and 1941, they produced a film called "The Mentally Ill" in which electroshock and gassing procedures were discussed. The picture supposedly proves the "scientific" incurability of the insane by electroshock and justifies gassing them to death as the only other valid option.

Later, Leo Alexander, as a consultant to the Office of the Chief Counsel for War Crimes during the postwar Nuremberg trials, interviewed the Nazi doctors and studied their research. In his 1945 report, "Public Mental Health Practices in Germany: Sterilization and Execution of Patients Suffering from Nervous or Mental Disease," he detailed how children had been killed by gas and electricity in the Grafekek and Hadamar centers. …

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