Psychiatric Hospitals Can Still Force Patients to Accept Shock Treatment. One Connecticut Patient Has Been Shocked 500 Times in Five Years.
Gina Teixeira, an attorney with the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, got the call last May. A court was going to force a man to undergo shock therapy, and he wanted her help fighting the order.
He wasn’t alone. Teixeira regularly receives inquiries from Connecticut patients facing involuntary shock treatment court orders, including one client who she says has been unwillingly subjected to the shocks 500 times.
“I think it happens a lot more than people realize,” Teixeira says.
Shock therapy, also known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), was developed in the late 1930s as a psychiatric treatment for severe psychosis and catatonia. Patients undergoing the procedure receive jolts of electricity from electrodes placed on their temples, triggering a brain seizure and convulsions that last up to a minute. After the two Italian psychiatrists who invented the treatment reported positive results, a 1938 news headline declared “Madness Cured with Electricity.”
It soon became evident, though, that the treatment could cause severe cognitive impairment and memory loss. In a 1944 study, shock therapy recipients “described losses such as the inability to recognize friends and acquaintances” which “remained after years and appeared to be permanent.” Another study worryingly concluded that patients who improved or recovered after the seizure-inducing treatments had a “high frequency of relapse.”
Reports subsequently emerged in the 1950s of psychiatric hospital doctors and orderlies using the novel treatment to modify the behavior of harmless and healthy patients. One woman was given shock treatment because her family was upset she had run off with her apparently “homosexual” boyfriend and “walked about carrying ‘Proust’ under her arm.”
To counter evidence of shock therapy’s serious side effects, limited therapeutic benefits, and potential for abuse, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) partnered with shock industry lobbyists in the 1970s to persuade the public that the treatment was safe and effective. Though it took time, the public relations campaign succeeded. Prominent media outlets regularly report that today’s “safe and effective” version of electroconvulsive therapy no longer resembles the barbaric shock procedure depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Many recipients voluntarily consent to shock therapy, which is typically given for treatment-resistant depression, and get better. In 2008, the National Mental Health Association reported that shock treatments tripled to 100,000 a year, a figure that is frequently re-printed in other news publications. In 2016, Dr. Linda Lagemann, a former associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, estimated that shock therapy generates $1.8 billion in costs annually, half of which are covered by Medicare.
Corresponding with shock therapy’s comeback, reports of the procedure’s devastating side effects and limited effectiveness re-appeared. A 2010 review of eight meta-analyses concluded that, because shock therapy causes persistent and permanent memory loss and a slight increased risk of death, “its use cannot be scientifically justified.” In 2018, as the result of a class-action lawsuit, ECT device maker Somatics added a warning to its instruction manual that in “rare cases, patients may experience…permanent brain damage.”
Despite such accounts, warnings and studies, many states still allow physicians to force shock therapy onto people who don’t want it. While physicians are typically required to secure court orders before forcibly shocking patients, the Minnesota City Pages has called the process “more of a bureaucratic formality than a serious deliberation.”
It is virtually impossible to know how many Americans are involuntarily shocked, since, besides Texas, states don’t require hospitals to report how often they administer the procedure. Likewise, medical privacy laws
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