January 30, 2009

Electroshock for Children and Involuntary Adults

By Dr. Peter Breggin
America and Australia are two countries I vastly admire. Nonetheless, they are continuing to abuse psychiatric patients with electroshock treatment (ECT). In America involuntary adults are being shocked despite the best efforts of psychiatric reformers (Oaks, 2009). In Australia psychiatrists have taken shock treatment to a new level of barbarity by shocking 55 toddlers age four and younger in Victoria (Hale, 2009).

The controvery over shocking children has a long history. In 2000 before his untimely death, Steve Baldwin, at the time a professor of psychology in Australia, and his co-author Melissa Oxlad wrote a book reviewing and condemning the practice throughout the world.

Electroshock “treatment” was discovered in the 1930s in a slaughterhouse in Italy. Before being killed, hogs were knocked out by a jolt of electricity to the head and brain. If they weren’t slaughtered, after a while the animals awoke and were able walk around on wobbly legs. Two Italian psychiatrists learned about this phenomenon and immediately tested it on an involuntary patient. The patient wasn’t knocked out by the first jolt and struggled from the table screaming “Murder!” The doctors gave him a bigger jolt. When he awoke, he was docile and no longer complained. A miracle treatment was born and the two psychiatrists became famous.

Why in the world would medical doctors be so excited about a jolt of electricity that knocked out a hog without killing it? This was the era that originated lobotomy–slicing up, burning or poisoning the highest centers of the human brain. It was also the era that originated insulin coma therapy–putting patients into a coma with overdoses of insulin that destroyed brain cells in great batches throughout the brain. Doctors were looking for new ways to inflict controlled damage on the patient’s brain without completely destroying its function.

In those early days, many psychiatrists voiced the opinion that brain damage was good for the “mentally ill.” It certainly made the patients more docile and hence easier to manage in giant state lockups. Only in more recent times, in response to criticism, did shock advocates begin to claim that the treatment was harmless and corrected biochemical imbalances.

Shock treatment damages the brain through a variety of mechanisms. First, it causes grand mal seizures that are much more intense and destructive than those spontaneously experienced by people with severe epilepsy. These multiple seizures (typically 3 per week for a few weeks or more) exhaust and damage neurons or brain cells. Second, the electric current by itself damages the brain by disrupting electrical function, over-heating brain tissue, stimulating massive hypertension inside the brain, breaking down the blood brain barrier, and causing tiny blood vessels to spasm shut, depriving neurons of oxygen and nutrients. Commonly, patients undergo several seconds after ECT in which their brain flatlines–zero detectable electrical activity–a sign of permanent brain death when extended for minutes. Animal studies have shown small hemorrhages and cell death throughout the brain and in the frontal lobes after exposure to doses of ECT that are smaller than nowadays used in clinical practice. Human studies show that former ECT patients suffer from persistent loss of mental function and dementia (see Breggin, 2008; Sackeim et al., 2007).

Shock advocates have proven impervious to science and to public criticism. Like men who beat their wives and abuse their children, shock doctors escalate their violence when criticized. Like other abusers, criticism by itself will not stop them. Shock treatment must be banned. We can begin by banning it on children eighteen and younger, and involuntary adults.

I began writing about this abusive practice exactly thirty years ago when I published the first and only medical book devoted to looking at the damaging effects of this treatment (Breggin, 1979). I have written scientific articles on the damaging effects of ECT (Breggin, 1998) and updated the scientific facts in my latest medical book, Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry: Drugs, Electroshock and the Psychopharmaceutical Complex (2008).

I have not been alone in criticizing the “treatment” as wholly ineffective (Colin, 2006) and as dangerous. One heroic shock survivor, Leonard Frank, spent decades re-educating himself and learning to live with long-term harmful effects, devoting himself to reform in psychiatry, and even to writing one of the best scientific critiques of ECT (Frank, 1990).

Lately, doctors who recommend or carry out ECT have been taking heat in the U.S. court system. In June 2005 in south Carolinia, I was the medical expert in the first ever malpractice trial in which a jury found a doctor negligent for referring a patient for ECT (see for details). Not long ago, I was the medical expert in a malpractice case that was settled for a very large sum. It involved a man whose life was ruined by considerably more than 100 treatments (a huge number!) over a two-year period.

Meanwhile, the shock advocates themselves have published a long-term followup of patients treated with electroshock and found massive harm to the brain and mind, including persistent dementia (Sackeim et al., 2007). How have the shock doctor’s responded to the latest confirmation that their treatment destroys the brain and mind? Not a single one has expressed any caution following the publication of the study. As we now see, they have pressed harder to enforce it on children and involuntary adults.

Shock treatment has been going since 1938–more than 70 years. Let’s celebrate the passing of its 70th anniversary by putting a stop to it, once and for all.


Baldwin, Steve, and Oxlad, Melissa. Electroshock for minors: A fifty-year review. West Port, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Breggin, P. (1979). Electroshock: Its brain-disabling effects. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Breggin, P. (1992). The return of ECT. Readings: A Journal of Reviews and Commentary in Mental Health, 3 (March, No. 1), 12-17

Breggin, P. (2008). Brain-Disabling treatments in psychiatry. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Breggin, P. (1998). Electroshock: Scientific, ethical, and political issues. International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine 11, 5-40. (PDF file)

Frank, L. (1990). Electroshock: death, brain damage, memory loss, and brain washing. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 11, 489-512. Hale, Eleni. Child Shock Therapy. Melbourne Herald Sun, January 25, 2009.

Oaks, David. (2009)

Ross, Colin (2006). The sham ECT literature: Implications for consent to ECT. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 17-28.

Sackeim, H., Prudic, J., Fuller, R., Keilp, J., Lavori, P. and Olfson, M. (2007). The cognitive effects of electroconvulsive therapy in community settings. Neuropsychopharmacology, 32, 244-254.

Originally published on The Huffington Post