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Is it okay to treat mental health patients like unruly cows?

Apparently aversive conditioning techniques are still used in some states, including Illinois, where a couple uses a cattle prod device to handle the violent outbursts of their 48-year-old Autistic son. In an article posted on, titled “Shock Treatment Sought for Autistic Man”, the man’s mother says the shock is no more painful then that of a bee sting and she uses it to stop her son from hurting himself. Apparently, the group home which housed the autistic man was accustomed to dealing with his outbursts using the cattle prod, until the home was acquired by new service provider which refused to utilize the device on the man stating that they found it unethical. The parents of the man, Bradley Bernstein, say that they are fighting a ruling which held that the cattle prod treatment violates an amendment to the state which was passed last May. Bradley’s mother said that he had started “beating himself up” during a recent home visit and his doctor’s worry that he will inflict permanent damage on himself if his outbursts go untreated. His mother offered these closing words to the interview;

“The judge and the legislature are taking my son’s life away,” Mrs. Bernstein said. “If he doesn’t stop hitting his head he’s going to go blind.”

Before you start blaming the parents of this man for inflicting pain on their child, you should know that there are still doctors who support the use of shocks for certain individuals. One, in fact, is Harvard educated psychologist Matthew Isreal, whom co-founded a residential school in Canton, Massachusetts where a similar shock-eliciting device is used to “decelerate” the students when they engage in serious behavioral episodes including self-injury. Opponents of the shock treatment hold that utilizing aversive conditioning techniques to treat patients is cruel and unusual punishment, however Isreal holds that there are no side effects and that he prefers the device to traditional medications which may cause lethargy and inability to pay attention in class. He had this to say about critics reactions to the technique; “(they) have never seen children who have blinded themselves, or banged their head to the point of brain injury, or bit a hole in their cheek”.

We all need to take a close look at these issues. After reading this article I had to ask myself; what would I do if my child was hurting him/herself and I had no way of controlling them, especially if their communication skills were so lacking that I could not determine if they even understood what I was asking of them? Yes, shock treatment definitely sounds like the worst possible way have to control your child, but what is the alternative? Watching them beat themselves bloody or unconscious? Violent outbursts are an especially difficult thing for anyone to control in their children, but as they become bigger and stronger the situation is exacerbated. What about modern medicine? Should we just keep administering drugs to deal with the behavior even if it means that our children become too lethargic to learn? Whenever you take or administer a drug, you are making a quality of life decision; are the side effects of the drug worth any relief from my ailments? This is especially true of psychiatric medications. Also, just how painful is this device? Is it, like Bradley’s mother states “like a bee sting” or is it that which critics state; akin to putting your finger in an electrical outlet? If it is only “like a bee sting” does it make the device any worse then spanking?

I’m still undecided. I definitely think that shocking someone isn’t something we should do without much consideration. If there are other options which would present a greater quality of life then causing someone undue pain and suffering then we need to explore those options first. However, in the case of having tried everything else available is shock therapy the next step?

Is it okay to treat mental health patients like unruly cows?

Jennifer Bechdel

Jennifer Bechdel, MBA is a freelance and technical writer, as well as a marketing consultant. She focuses on workplace issues, stress, and unemployment topics.

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APA Reference
Bechdel, J. (2018). Is it okay to treat mental health patients like unruly cows?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 26 Mar 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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