Electroshock Therapy: Psychiatric Technique Gets Shocking Boost from Media
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 in 1995, 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.