Appalling Silence on ECT

© rangizzz | 123rf.com

© rangizzz | 123rf.com

Kenny was put on antidepressants at the age of 14 because he was struggling in a difficult family situation. His symptoms became worse. The psychiatrist added another drug with again worsening symptoms. At one point, he was taking six different psychiatric drugs. Kenny was eventually told his depression was “treatment resistant” and needed electroshock therapy.  “The risks were downplayed.” He was given 30 rounds of ECT and went from a high school honor student to having to be retaught how to tie his shoes. Wait, there’s more!

Kenny lost all memories of childhood and all memories of high school. He says it’s an identity crisis. He suffered severe headaches for a year and a half after the shocks and had to see a cardiologist because ECT left him with heart arrhythmia. Testing by a neurologist, done six months after the shocks, showed a loss of 50 IQ points compared to his high school IQ. Kenny still suffers from night terrors about the shocks.

Dr. Langemann’s article on “Shock Therapy” for the Huffington Post also referred to a biomedical engineer who said the “brief pulse” of ECT is actually a series of several hundred pulses, and not a single pulse. These pulses overstimulate brain cells, causing rapid random firing, intentionally causing a Grand Mal seizure. “The current causes overheating inside the brain and the electric field can tear holes in the cells (which causes the cells to die).” She noted that a conservative estimate is that 100,000 patients per year receive ECT.

Incredibly, ECT has never been through the standard clinical trial process to prove its safety or efficacy. Although the FDA has had the authority to regulate medical devices since 1976, it disregarded ECT machines because they’ve been in widespread use since the 1950s, according to STAT News in “Psychiatric Shock Therapy.” The FDA placed ECT machines in the class III (high risk) category where they have remained since that time. But in December of 2015, the FDA made public a draft document proposing to reclassify ECT machines as a class II (low risk) device. Before the public comment period ended in late March of 2016, the FDA had received 2,040 comments on its draft rule. The agency has not set a timetable for issuing its final ruling.

While the proposed regulations would indicate that ECT was “safe and effective” and only moderately risky for adults, it would only be approved for adults with severe depression who haven’t responded to medication or other therapies. It would remain classified as a high risk  (class III) for psychiatric conditions other than major depression and for children and adolescents. There would be new requirements as well. Doctors would have to warn patients of the side effects of ECT, which include confusion and memory loss; and that long-term safety for ECT is not proven.

Psychiatrists warn that that these new regulations could lead to insurers not covering ECT and doctors not recommending it for younger patients and those with conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and catatonia. (They say it like that’s a bad thing) Charles Kellner, a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine said, “Its use for these indications is widespread, even ubiquitous, and to deny the extensive evidence in support of that is indefensible.” Supporters say ECT has come a long way since it was portrayed in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Patients get anesthesia and sedatives to minimize pain and muscle spasms, so they are less likely to hurt themselves during the ECT seizure. “Ultra-brief pulse therapy delivers a fraction of the electricity used in the past.” However, as noted above, this claim is disputed. See “The Frankenstein Monster of ECT” and “Is ECT Brain Disabling?” on this website.

Writing for GlobalResearch, Dr. Gary Kohls described ECT “therapy” sessions as: “sub-lethal electrocutions of the brain that reliably produces seizures and coma.” He noted that the perceived improvement with ECT is often because of the frequent short-term and long-term memory loss that occurs with shock treatment. “The patient may no longer remember the traumatizing interpersonal/sexual/social/ psychological/spiritual conflicts that previously made them feel sad, nervous, depressed, anxious or hopeless.” He lamented that studies show physicians reach for their prescription pad within minutes of most clinic encounters. “Time is money.”

Dr. Kohls then quoted excerpts from the testimony of Leonard Roy Frank before the Mental Health Committee of the New York State Assembly in 2001. Mr. Frank was a psychiatric survivor and activist who personally experienced 35 ECT procedures and 50 insulin coma treatments. The transcript of his testimony can be read here in its entirety. He said:

This was the most painful and humiliating experience of my life. My memory for the three preceding years was gone. The wipeout in my mind was like a path cut across a heavily chalked blackboard with a wet eraser. Afterwards I didn’t know that John F. Kennedy was president although he had been elected three years earlier. There were also big chunks of memory loss for events and periods spanning my entire life; my high school and college education was effectively destroyed. I felt that every part of me was less than what it had been.

Frank then elaborated on some of the adverse effects from ECT. With regard to memory loss, he indicated that the APA downplays memory loss, saying most patients actually report improved memory; and only a minority of patients report problems with memory loss. He said the vast majority of individuals he has talked to reported moderate-to-severe amnesia going back two years and more from the time they received ECT.  His own experience was noted above.

Quoting the 2001 APA Task Report on ECT, Frank noted where a reasonable ECT-related mortality rate was suggested to be 1 per 10,000 patients. However, some studies show the ECT death rate is about one in 200. This rate may not still be accurate, as an increasing number of the elderly are being electro shocked. “Statistics based on California’s mandated ECT reporting system indicate that upwards of 50 percent of all ECT patients are 60 years of age and older.”

Frank described what he referred to as “the myth of informed consent.” While outright force is seldom used, “genuine informed consent is never obtained” because ECT specialists minimize the procedure’s nature and effects to candidates and their families; and because of the implicit coercion that can be brought to play. There is a lack of accountability with psychiatry. It was a “Teflon” profession, meaning what little criticism there is doesn’t stick. “Psychiatrists routinely carry out brutal acts of inhumanity and no one calls them on it — not the courts, not the government, not the people.”

Electroshock could never have become a major psychiatric procedure without the active collusion and silent acquiescence of tens of thousands of psychiatrists. Many of them know better; all of them should know better. The active and passive cooperation of the media has also played an essential role in expanding the use of electroshock. Amidst a barrage of propaganda from the psychiatric profession, the media passes on the claims of ECT proponents almost without challenge. The occasional critical articles are one-shot affairs, with no follow-up, which the public quickly forgets. With so much controversy surrounding this procedure, one would think that some investigative reporters would key on to the story. But it’s happened only rarely up to now. And the silence continues to drown out the voices of those who need to be heard. I’m reminded of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in which he wrote: “We shall have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Psychiatrist Peter Breggin has advocated against ECT for decades. You can watch an 11-minute video he did called, “Electroshock is Brain Trauma.” He indicated the 100,000 per year estimate for ECT was based on data he gathered in 1979 for his book critical of shock treatment. He said today every large city has several places that do shock treatment. “It’s extremely remunerative.”

Dr. Lagemann indicated that standard treatment is 9 to 12 shocks, at a cost of $2,000 to $2,500 each. When you do the math, you come up with a minimum income of $1.8 billion (9 x 100,000 x $2,000 = $1.8 billion). About half the cost is covered by Medicare. Mr. Frank indicated that in 2001, psychiatrists specializing in shock treatment earned $300,000-$500,000 a year compared to other psychiatrists whose mean annual income was $150,000.

What’s wrong with shock treatment? How does it work? It’s not as mysterious as the advocates make out. Shock works by passing an electric current through one or both frontal lobes of the brain, producing an electrical lobotomy.  The electricity also passes through the memory centers of the temporal lobe, causing additional devastation. Finally, the current passes throughout the brain and that, along with the severe seizures that result, causes widespread brain dysfunction and damage. Some patients initially become euphoric from the damage, whereupon the shock doctor notes approvingly, “mood elevated.” All patients eventually become apathetic and indifferent, and unable to resist, whereupon the doctor notes with finality about the outcome, “no longer complaining.”

Dr. Breggin said the only reason that modern shock doctors don’t talk about ECT as damaging the brain is because he publicized and documented how it was in his book, Electroshock: Its Brain-Disabling Effects. He noted that when ECT treatment is done, it results in a period of coma. “How could a blow to the brain with electricity so severe it causes a coma, and you’re not harmed by it?” Very often the EEG brain waves flat line—that’s temporary brain death. The person wakes up completely disoriented. The longer the treatment continues, the more past memory the person loses.

The STAT News article noted where a woman who had 66 ECT treatments between 1996 and 2010 to treat depression left such holes in her memory that she couldn’t recall her wedding day or the birth of her children. Her 28-year marriage ended, ““because I couldn’t remember that relationship, and without those memories, I had no emotional connection.”

Dr. Breggin created a free website about shock treatment: ECT Resources Center.  Among its documents is a simple introductory statement and brochure for widespread distribution. There are also PDFs of more than 100 scientific articles on issues with ECT. He urged people to do everything they can to stop someone they know getting ECT, because they will never be the same afterward.

As of September 1st, there has not been an announcement of what the FDA plans to do with ECT. But when the FDA announced it was soliciting comments of the proposed regulatory changes, the American Psychiatric Association created a form letter for psychiatrists to “take the lead in expressing their views” regarding the role of ECT in clinical practice and treating major depressive disorder. See “Time is Now to Support the ECT Reclassification Effort.” The letter asserted that ECT was an important treatment option for some people with severe mental health conditions. “Your proposed reclassification will greatly improve access to safe, effective treatment for individuals with serious and persistent psychiatric disorders.” You can download and read a copy of the form letter in the above link. I wonder how many of the 2,040 comments were APA form letters from psychiatrists?


Is ECT Brain Disabling?

I’ve only had a couple of up-close-and-personal experiences with people who have had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Both were residents of a long-term addiction treatment facility for women. One woman was in her late 20s who didn’t appear to have suffered any serious side effects after her ECT treatment. But the ECT didn’t seem to have a clearly positive effect on her depression. Actually, her mood seemed rather flattened afterwards.

The other woman had been a resident for a few months and suffered a severe depressive episode for which she agreed to have ECT. A small group of the residents gathered around her when she returned from her stay and ECT treatment at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC). The other residents were supportive, asking how she was doing; telling her they were glad to see her, etc. She responded in a quiet, timid manner, thanking them for their support. As the group broke up and we entered the facility, she whispered to me: “Who were those people?”

Since then, I’ve read some of the material of the opponents to ECT, particularly Peter Breggin, who has a long history of activism against ECT. Dr. Breggin, has gathered an incredible amount of information on the website ECT Resources Center.

So I was interested when I saw an online article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December of 2013 on ECT treatment at WPIC, “Electroconvulsive therapy a surprisingly common treatment for mental illness.” The psychiatrist who treated the woman in the article said that ECT “is the most effective antidepressant still out there.” The article was clearly positive about the use of ECT, but a sentence stood out to me: “Doctors are still not sure why ECT works.” Yet, Dr. Breggin wrote on his website:

ECT works by damaging the brain. The initial trauma can cause an artificial euphoria which ECT doctors mistakenly call an improvement. After several routine ECTs, the damaged person becomes increasingly apathetic, indifferent, unable to feel genuine emotions, and even robotic. Memory loss and confusion worsen. This helpless individual becomes unable to voice distress or complaints, and becomes docile and manageable. ECT doctors mistakenly call this an improvement but it indicates severe and disabling brain injury.

A 78-year-old Beaver Falls woman, who had been treated for a bipolar disorder since the 1960s, was the featured patient in the Post-Gazette article. The reporter, Mark Roth, was permitted access to observe her ECT treatment. He wrote that she was unconscious and her muscles were paralyzed from anesthesia, “It was over in 8 seconds. . . . For her and for anyone watching, it was far less dramatic than they might have imagined.” After her series of 10 shock treatments, the woman felt that ECT helped her tremendously. She said that ECT made it possible for her to climb out of the deepest depression she had ever experienced.

The comment of ECT being “far less dramatic” was an allusion to the 1975 movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where Jack Nicholson’s character was held down by attendants as he went through ECT treatment and the resultant seizure.

The modern use of anesthesia and muscle relaxants means that physical restraint, as portrayed in the movie, no longer occurs. But as Dr. Breggin pointed out in a debate with Dr. Helen Lavretsky, anesthesia makes it more difficult to initiate a seizure, so the patient has to have a greater shock than was given in the past. Listen here to the debate with Dr. Helen Lavretsky located on the ECT Resources Center website.

Dr. Lavretsky said that ECT was rarely performed, but Dr. Solia of WPIC, said that was a common misconception, at least at WPIC. He said that WPIC was one of the largest operations in the nation, performing “more than 300 electroshock procedures per month.” An assembly line procedure had “one set of patients being prepped with IV lines as another one is getting the treatment and still others are coming back to consciousness in a recovery area.”

There hasn’t been any follow up to the Post-Gazette article, even though the original article did say it was the “first of five parts.” In preparing my own article, I read the comments to the original article and I think I understand why. What was supposed to have been a positive public relations story about the ECT clinic at WPIC became a lightening rod that attracted strong negative attention. The majority of comments were negative like the following:

Not everyone’s ECT experiences are as positive as this article suggests. After my ECT I lost all memories of the year of my life before the treatments. This caused social and professional problems, as you can imagine, and also considerable personal pain. I also acquired some cognitive deficits with which I continue to struggle. (Sonia)I found ECT severely traumatizing, rendering profound memory loss that continues to manifest itself even 1 1/2 years later. I continue to suffer with cognitive defects and emotional pain that interfere with my work, social and personal life. I have repeatedly encountered others with very negative experiences. ECT does have positive results in some, but there are many for whom the treatment fails and wreaks havoc. (Kelly)

At least some of the individuals thought the article sounded like a “PR piece.” Cheryl asked: “Why not write another piece of equal length, focusing on the points of view medical professionals and former patients and their families who have the opposing viewpoint.” Don’t continue to wait for that to happen. I don’t think there will be any follow up articles. Just go to Dr. Breggin’s ECT Resources Center and get credible information on the problems with ECT.

Is ECT the most effective antidepressant, or is it a brain disabling injury masquerading as treatment?