Shock and Disbelief

Electroconvulsive therapy was once psychiatry's most terrifying tool—blunt, painful, and widely abused. It is now a safe and effective treatment for a wide range of mental illnesses. But an unlikely trio of activist groups stands against it

On the cover of a pamphlet I was sent recently appears a photograph of an elderly man with bright bolts of electricity shooting outward from his temples. His teeth are clenched. His eyes are squeezed shut. His hair is standing on end. Holding the man's head secure is a leather strap that resembles the restraint on a prisoner in the electric chair.

This is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)—the psychiatric use of an electric current to stimulate a grand mal seizure—as seen through the eyes of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a lobbying group founded by the Church of Scientology and the most active and well-organized anti-ECT group in existence. It is a grim view, invoking coercion, barbarity, anguish—everything negative that has ever been associated with psychiatry. It is also the common view.

Last fall I saw a patient receive ECT at McLean Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Belmont, Massachusetts. There, in a well-lit treatment room, attended by a nurse, a psychiatrist, and an anesthesiologist, a middle-aged man suffering from hallucinations and depression lay unconscious on his back while two electrode paddles were placed on his head. A button was pressed, and the patient's right foot twitched lightly. Shortly afterward the patient awoke and was given a snack before being escorted back to his room.

The contrast between image and reality is surprising. The procedure I saw at McLean reflects the way ECT has been administered for years, as cautiously and as formally as any other medical procedure—perhaps even more so, because of the awareness psychiatrists have of ECT's reputation as savage. Yet the popular image of ECT has persisted, sustained almost single-handedly, it sometimes seems, by the 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the release of which coincided with a decline in the use of ECT. In 1980 less than three percent of all psychiatric inpatients were being treated with the procedure, and by 1983, thirty-three states were in some way regulating it.

Although the public seemed willing to let ECT fall into obsolescence, many psychiatrists felt that they were losing a valuable and irreplaceable treatment. In 1985 the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, called a three-day conference on electroconvulsive therapy. The first day of the conference passed without incident, as experts delivered lectures. On the second day, however, during an open discussion period, anger erupted on the floor of the conference hall. Former patients and even a few clinicians began protesting loudly. One of those present was Max Fink, then a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a pioneer in modern ECT research. As Fink remembers it, "They were shouting, 'How dare you even consider electroshock as a possibility! It has no place in the world! Everybody who does electroshock should be in jail!'"

When the conference resumed, a panel of "nonadvocate" experts forged a consensus statement in which they observed, with standoffish delicacy,

Electroconvulsive therapy is the most controversial treatment in psychiatry. The nature of the treatment itself, its history of abuse, unfavorable media presentations, compelling testimony of former patients, special attention by the legal system, uneven distribution of ECT use among practitioners and facilities, and uneven access by patients all contribute to the controversial context in which the consensus panel has approached its task.

Today ECT has strengthened its position in the profession. Many psychiatrists, whether or not they actively administer the treatment, have come to appreciate its ability to ameliorate a range of mental illnesses, from depression to some forms of schizophrenia and catatonia. A 1993 commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine stated, "Electroconvulsive therapy is more firmly established than ever as an important method of treating certain severe forms of depression." The first phase of a National Institute of Mental Health-supported study, to be published this spring, found that ECT produced a greater than 95 percent remission rate in psychotically depressed patients—vastly higher than the rate for any drug on the market. When I talked with Fink recently, he told me, "ECT is the most effective antidepressant, antipsychotic, anticatatonic we have today." Other psychiatrists have been even more enthusiastic. One, T. George Bidder, has written that ECT is "one of the most effective treatments in all of medicine—with a therapeutic efficacy, in properly selected cases, comparable to some of the most potent and specific treatments available, such as penicillin in pneumonococcal pneumonia." Such endorsements have led to what looks like a renaissance for ECT: it is estimated that 100,000 patients are treated with it each year—nearly triple the number cited for 1980 by the NIMH.

Yet the attacks on the treatment are as virulent as ever. Activists continue to push for prohibitive legislation. In 1997 a bill that would effectively have made administering ECT a criminal act, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to six months in jail, was narrowly defeated in Texas. ECT has virtually disappeared from state-run psychiatric facilities, owing in large part to government regulation. To be treated, patients must almost always gain access to a private or academic hospital. This means that ECT is very rarely an option for poor patients—those without adequate insurance or access to information, or without the means to travel, for example, to a distant, well-equipped university hospital. A 1995 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that ECT was unavailable in more than a third of the 317 metropolitan areas nationwide that it surveyed. "The situation has reversed itself from where it was decades ago," says Richard Weiner, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University and the head of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on ECT. "Many ECT patients used to be asylum patients. Now it's very hard to get ECT in such places, and its use has shifted to general hospitals and private psychiatric hospitals."

The stigma attached to ECT is in some ways a holdover from less scrupulous days of psychiatry. But one of the main reasons many people still consider ECT to be archaic and even destructive is that it continues to be painted as such by an unlikely trio of activist groups: a handful of former ECT patients, some dissenting psychiatrists, and the Church of Scientology. These groups have agitated for the complete elimination of ECT. They have pushed legislative attempts to limit or ban ECT. They have initiated and supported lawsuits against psychiatrists, hospitals, and ECT-device manufacturers. They claim that ECT is authoritarian, violent, and representative of everything that is wrong with the profession of psychiatry. And despite all medical evidence to the contrary, people are listening to them.

"A Crack of Electricity"

Electroconvulsive therapy emerged during a bleak period for psychiatry. In the first third of the twentieth century not much could be done for the mentally ill. Psychoanalysis, the dominant method of treatment, proved helpful to some wealthy patients complaining of the so-called "minor illnesses": melancholy and neurosis. But it didn't do much for patients with more-systemic afflictions, such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness. These patients were merely warehoused in vast state asylums, where conditions were appalling. Patients were abused, shackled, even surgically sterilized. Psychiatry's job seemed to be no more than brutal custodianship; psychiatrists could do no more than hope that their patients would recover spontaneously from their illnesses. Under these desperate circumstances some psychiatrists began experimenting with radical treatments: insulin coma, transorbital lobotomy, malarial fever.

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