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Forced ECT is Wrong in Minnesota, World

I can’t believe I’d ever had to write an entry like this. It turns my stomach.

On Friday, MindFreedom, a non-profit human rights organization for people labeled with psychiatric illnesses, published the disturbing story of Ray Sandford, a 54-year-old resident of Columbia Heights, Minnesota.

Sandford’s sad story is amazing and haunting. He is undergoing electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for severe depression. We don’t know the full back-story, but the fact that he lives in a sheltered living home called Victory House suggests he’s had a rough life of it so far.

Lots of people undergo ECT, although I’m not a big proponent of it. I believe that because of the unpredictable memory loss associated with this “treatment,” it is not only a treatment of last resort in depression, it should probably be done away with as a treatment altogether except in extreme cases. Proponents of ECT claim the memory loss associated with ECT is always around the time of the ECT itself, yet there are thousands of documented cases (many of which appear in the published literature) that show that the extent and severity of memory loss is random and unpredictable. You could lose memories associated with your childhood, or best friend, or even a spouse. No one can tell you what your experience will be. So in effect, the treatment can be nearly as painful as the disease itself.

Which isn’t to say that ECT hasn’t helped people. But so did amputations prior to the 1800s, because medical science had no understanding of infection, bacteria, or sterilization. I would humbly suggest our understanding of the brain is about where medical science was 200 years ago. And to apply electrical shocks to it to combat depression is akin to amputating your leg because you suffered from a scratch while walking in the woods, which later got infected. It works, but it’s the crudest method imaginable. (Frankly, I put it a small step up from trepanation.)

So ECT is a treatment option and since science has shown it works (just as science once showed that leeches applied to the body “worked”), it’s available to anyone who is informed of its risks and chooses it as a treatment for depression.

But ECT is rarely administered against a person’s will in modern science. Most professionals and states recognize that a person’s Constitutional rights would likely be violated if they were to be forced to undergo a controversial treatment procedure that even the scientific community doesn’t agree upon. Sadly, Ray Sandford lives in Minnesota, and apparently Minnesota doesn’t much care about a person’s Constitutional rights if they’ve been relieved of them by a court. Ray Sandford doesn’t want the ECT treatments, but he no longer has a choice or say in the matter.

Ray Sandford has a legal guardian — a court-appointed conservator — whose name is Tonya Wilhelm. Wilhelm works for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and it is Wilhelm who authorized the forced treatment of the person she is legally bound to protect and look out for his best interests. Of course she didn’t do this on her own, a doctor experienced with ECT treatments recommended it to her (or the courts), and she agreed (on behalf of her client). And why not? What does Wilhelm have to lose since it’s not her brain they’re treating?

The transcript with MindFreedom’s David Oaks is chilling:

Ms. Wilhelm said, “We are following the letter of the law.” She said the State of Minnesota had secured a variety of court orders that require Ray to have forced electroshock against his expressed wishes. Ms. Wilhelm says it’s all legal and she can’t do anything about it.

Well, of course you can do something about it — you’re charged with protecting the person that you agreed to act as conservator to!

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is the largest, statewide non-profit social service organization in Minnesota with over 2,200 employees who serve in 300 communities. It has an annual budget of $90 million. So this is not some mom-and-pop organization, but rather a far-reaching Christian-based organization that should know better. And, you’d think, would be against forced-treatment of this nature.

Agree or disagree with me about ECT. Agree or disagree with me about forced treatment. But I think most of us can agree that if that were our loved one who was being forced to undergo a controversial treatment with questionable and sometimes disturbing side effects, we’d take a step back and ask such treatments to stop. I thought the barbaric practice of forced electroshock treatments went out in the 1960s, as we began to better understand the human dignity and rights of people with mental illness and close down the huge public psychiatric hospitals. Nobody should undergo a forced medical procedure that they don’t want, regardless of the outcome. That is a right embodied in our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the foundation of our Constitution.

We don’t know all of the details of this case (like Sandford’s previous history, other treatments, and why he has a conservator). So perhaps an important piece of the puzzle hasn’t been provided. But I can’t imagine what additional information would make forced ECT treatments “okay.”

We call on the good people at Lutheran Social Service — Mark Peterson, Jodi Harpstead, Joyce Norals, Kenneth Borle, Ember Reichgott Junge, Jeri Schoonover, and Rod Brown, all of whom are the executives of Lutheran Social Service — to look into this matter more closely and determine whether Tonya Wilhelm is indeed acting in the best interests of her conservatee, and reply to the allegations that Ray Sandford is being forcibly made to undergo ECT treatments he does not want.

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By the way, Minnesota is one of those states that agrees with forced outpatient treatment and has codified it into law. The Treatment Advocacy Center calls such forced treatment as “assisted outpatient treatment.” That’s like calling prison an “assisted living community.” According to TAC’s site, the forced treatment has to be court-ordered because the person has a high likelihood of being a danger to himself or to others.

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Read the two articles on Furious Seasons (hat tip!) about this: Help Stop Forced, Involuntary ECT In Minnesota and Neuroscientist Defends Forced ECT

Read NeuroSkeptic’s response: Shock and Cure

Read MindFreedom’s article which has a call to action in it: If it’s Wednesday, then Ray Sandford is Getting Escorted from His Home for Another Forced Electroshock

Forced ECT is Wrong in Minnesota, World

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Forced ECT is Wrong in Minnesota, World. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Nov 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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