Shock Therapy: Who's Getting Rich And Who's Getting Hurt?

Why is this brain- and life-damaging treatment still being done? Money.
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“Shock therapy is the perfect crime because the victims are usually too damaged or intimidated to talk and the perpetrator has authority to do it in plain sight.” ― Tony Bonfiglio, ECT survivor & activist

Shock therapy, also called electroconvulsive therapy or ECT, shoots up to 450 volts of electricity through the brain, intentionally causing a Grand Mal seizure. Most people surveyed thought it went out of use along with lobotomies. But ECT is currently done on people labeled with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and more. It is also even done on children with autism.

Inexcusably, ECT has never been vetted through standard clinical trials to prove safety or efficacy.

Nevertheless, on 29 December 2015, the FDA issued a proposed order to reclassify the shock machine from Class III high risk to Class II, safe and effective, with controls, for some disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and experts with financial conflicts of interest are urging the reclassification. Additionally, the president of the APA wrote to the FDA recommending they include use of ECT on children and adolescents in the reclassification.

More and more media is coming out lauding the “wonders” of ECT, quoting psychiatrists who administer it, saying ECT has been stigmatized and is nothing like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” They make the false claim that the currently used brief-pulse devices use less electricity and are therefore safe or do less brain damage than the older devices.

Despite authoritative assertions from these experts that ECT is safe and effective, there is no objective science backing up that claim. ECT manufacturers, with the complicity of the FDA, have for decades eluded the requirement of standard clinical trials. The FDA has been giving a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to the manufacturers and those who profit from doing ECT.

According to biomedical engineer Kenneth Castleman (retired faculty member and researcher Caltech, University of Texas, USC and UCLA and also served on advisory boards for NIH, NASA, and the FBI), the “brief pulse” is not a single pulse, but a series of several hundred pulses. The pulses overstimulate the brain cells, causing rapid random firing. The current causes overheating inside the brain and the electric field can tear holes in the cells (which causes the cells to die). The brief-pulse device delivers the same amount of electrical energy as the older machines, but in a much shorter time. This requires much higher levels of voltage, current, and power. It’s more dangerous. Picture filling a cup of water slowly with a garden hose (original devices) vs filling it with a fire hose (brief-pulse device). The fire hose blasts the water in using much more power in a shorter period of time.

Kenny Fleischman, ECT survivor and activist, is a 28-year-old young man who was given 30 rounds of the supposedly safe ECT in 2009/2010 at age 21. He went from being a high school honor student to having to be retaught how to tie his shoes. His story is classic. At age 14 he was put on an antidepressant for normal life struggles in a difficult family situation. The antidepressant caused a worsening of his symptoms. The psychiatrist then added another drug which gave him new and worse symptoms. This pattern of adding and changing drugs continued until, at one point, he was on a cocktail of six different psychiatric drugs. After being driven downhill by the drugs, he was told he was “treatment resistant” and needed electroshock therapy. The risks were downplayed.

Kenny lost all memories of childhood and all memories of high school. He says it’s an identity crisis. He suffered severe headaches for a year and a half after the shocks and had to see a cardiologist because ECT left him with heart arrhythmia. Testing by a neurologist, done six months after the shocks, showed a loss of 50 IQ points compared to his high school IQ. Kenny still suffers from night terrors about the shocks.

The “new and improved” ECT is worse than “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!”

And why is this brain- and life-damaging treatment still being done? Money.

It is conservatively estimated that at least 100,000 patients per year receive ECT. The standard number of treatments is 9-12 shocks. The typical cost per treatment is $2000-$2500. 9 x 100,000 x $2000 = $1.8 billion annually. That’s a lot of financial incentive. About half of that cost is covered by Medicare, according to Dr. Daniel Maixner of U-M Hospital’s new ECT Suite in Ann Arbor.

There are financial interests at stake and the psychiatric industry is engaged in a media marketing campaign. The intention is to make ECT and other brain devices, marketed as “stimulation,” the next blockbusters.

The House Oversight and Government Reform committee has begun an investigation into the FDA and its handling of the electroconvulsive therapy devices (ECT). Will the committee be able to get the FDA to rescind that “Get Out of Jail Free” card they’ve given the ECT industry?

If so, we should see ECT devices taken off the market until they can prove they are safe and effective by objective scientific methods.

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