By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon; (Creators Syndicate, 1995)
Electroshock, a medical procedure that jolts a patient's brain with high-voltage electricity, fell into some disrepute during the early 1970s. But in recent years, it has been making a comeback -- with substantial help from news media.
A pair of Associated Press articles last February, for instance, extolled electroshock as "the treatment of choice for the dangerously depressed." The 3,000 words from AP, published in news pages nationwide, did not include a quote from a single opponent of electroshock.
AP declared flatly that "there remains no faster, safer way to yank people out of deadly depressions than by placing electrodes on their temples and zapping their brains with enough electricity to trigger convulsions."
Two months ago, Denver resident Mark Stout reacted angrily when he read an article in USA Today that also touted electroshock as a therapeutic marvel. "Electric shock, given to my mother to `cure' her of the side effects of the antidepressants prescribed to `cure' her of the distress of a divorce, cost her life," Stout wrote to the newspaper.
Overall, rather than raising tough questions, news media have tended to cheerlead the resurgent shock technique.
Electroshock got a powerful boost in July 1993 when The New York Times front-paged a laudatory article headlined, "With Reforms in Treatment, Shock Therapy Loses Shock." Out of 33 paragraphs, a total of two described the concerns of electroshock foes. The rest of the article read like a pro-shock ad.
Media outlets could easily do better. Picking up the phone, we quickly reached two doctors in the San Francisco area who have been denouncing electroshock for more than 20 years.
"The injury is not the `side effect' -- it's the treatment," said psychiatrist Lee Coleman, who has written that "electroshock works by damaging the brain." Electroshock's results "are completely consistent with any acute brain injury, such as a blow to the head from a hammer. In essence, what happens is that the individual is dazed, confused, and disoriented, and therefore cannot remember or appreciate current problems."
"Shock treatment is a method for producing amnesia and intimidation and terror," neurologist John Friedberg told us.
Electroshock -- also known as electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT -- is encountering media skepticism in Britain. An outspoken Londoner who underwent the procedure two decades ago as a young woman, Jan Wallcraft, has helped to spark recent scrutiny. The Guardian newspaper and BBC television have provided in-depth reports.
So why isn't ECT more of an issue in U.S. media?
Part of the problem is that "mental patients" don't ordinarily get much media respect. Their experiences and perspectives are often discounted or tacitly disdained. What's more, coercive measures against them rarely arouse wide concern.
For several years, a group called Support Coalition, based in Eugene, Ore., has been working to draw attention to harsh violations of the rights of people stigmatized with psychiatric labels. Obstacles include a lot of prejudice and indifference.
In 1990, Project Censored cited human-rights violations involving electroshock as one of the "most censored stories" of the year. But the subject still gets very little press notice -- despite the fact that many people are directly affected.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 110,000 Americans now receive electroshock each year. In theory, the vast majority do so voluntarily. But some are pushed through legal loopholes and subjected to electroshock against their expressed will. Others are forced into bogus "agreement" in the midst of coercion or confusion.
Talk-show host Dick Cavett has praised electroshock therapy for saving him from serious depression. Yet, his own words shed light on circumstances that commonly render informed-consent rules meaningless: "The hospital requires a release for ECT. I others, electroshock has been horrendous.
No one should undergo a potentially damaging medical procedure without truly voluntary and informed consent. Such consent cannot really exist when hospitals -- and mass media -- withhold vital information.
"Organized psychiatry and leading electroshock advocates are determined not to tell patients about the risks of ECT," writes Peter R. Breggin, a psychiatrist and author who heads the Center for the Study of Psychiatry. "As long as those in control and authority paint so benign a picture of so dangerous a treatment, psychiatrists and mental-health practitioners in general are not likely to feel obliged to warn potential patients about its hazards."
Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are syndicated columnists and authors of the new book "Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News" (Common Courage Press).
Hello, I enjoyed reading your article. I have been a psychiatric nurse for 16 years,and reading your article really kind of shook me up. I have always took at face value, the information provided by physicians and pharmacutical companies about psychtropic medications. All my psychatric experiance has been in inpt. psychiatry, where the enviornment was very supportive and pts, received nurturing and some psycotherapy. What I saw in alot of the time was depressed patients improving quite dramatically in the first few days after admission,even before we had started them on medications. I attributed this to a supportive enviornment,and also pts. were removed from the enviornment they were in prior to admit, which in many cases was very stressful. Also many of our pts were alienated from family,and had virtually no support system. Once they would start to develop friend ships with peers on the unit,these pts. would be transformed over nite,their symptoms of depression would vanish,at least until they found out their discharge date was coming up. Their is a certain group of depressed pts. however which did not respond to the supportive enviornment at all. I am talking about the serverly depressed vegatative pts.,or the psychotic deppressed folks. They would either respond well to psychotropic meds,we would usually see improvment start in about 3-4 weeks,or they would also respond very well to E.C.T. I would be interested in your views on E.C.T. At this time ,I feel that you would say that it is perhaps barbaric,and should have been outlawed along with lobotomies and insulin shock. I felt that way at one time,but not anymore. I may be dating my self, but when I first started out,they did E.C.T. with no Brevitol or Succinolcholine. When we turned on the juice,we had to hold them down with pillows. I thought that was barbaric. My current opinion is that it should only be used as a last resort,on pts. who have failed on every thing else. I have seen it help people, with very dramatic improvment in mood. People who for years were hospitalized,and non functional finally improve.
I think your article has opened my eyes,to what I always suspected,but never really believed. I agree with you in part, in that for certain pts. especiallly borderline and non-vegatative type depressions, meds do not really help. on the other hand,vegatative, psychotic,or bipolar depressives.do respond well to psychotropic drugs,and if complient with med regimen are able to function well in society,and go long periods between hospitalizations I wonder if you are a physician,psychologist,or what your background is.
I would really like to hear from you and see what you think about my opinions, I am sure we could have some rather interesting discussions, if we dont agree on some things,that will make it all the more intreesting. Hope to hear from you in the future.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Sep 2002
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.