400-volt shocks applied to brain for 'well-being'
Psychiatrist leading campaign against use of 'archaic' electro-shock therapy in hospitals
According to a leading doctor, thousands of Irish psychiatric patients experiencing psychological distress have had electric shocks of up to 400 volts administered to their brains, frequently against their will.
This controversial treatment, known as electro- convulsive therapy (ECT), works by artificially inducing epileptic fits.
Those who endorse it believe that the seizure triggers a surge of "well-being" which soothes the symptoms of the psychological distress being targeted, such as depression, schizophrenia, mania, obsessive convulsive disorders and anorexia.
The last recorded figures reveal that, in 2003, 1,483 people here were treated with ECT, 859 of whom were in the south of Ireland and 624 in the north.
Dr Michael Corry, consultant psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychosocial Medicine, contends that the state of confusion, sometimes tinged with a mild euphoria, that is regularly encountered in the aftermath of some types of head injuries, temporarily obscures the patient's original symptoms, which is then erroneously classified by psychiatrists as an "improvement".
"The fact that these results wear off is underlined by the reality that some patients have literally had hundreds of shocks. Why is this terrible and devastating human rights abuse allowed to go on?" he asks.
Dr Corry is leading the Irish campaign to abolish ECT. "It's irrational, archaic and barbaric it has no place in the 21st century" he says.
"It is universally agreed that the occurrence of seizures in a patient is always harmful to their brain. Within neurology as a speciality, every effort is made to prevent seizures but, incredibly, psychiatry stands out as the only branch of medicine that specialises in deliberately causing seizures."
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He first witnessed ECT being administered during his psychiatric training at St Brendan's Psychiatric Hospital in the Seventies, where the shock of what he saw caused him to faint.
"I couldn't work out how this could possibly be done to human beings," he says. "I saw it as abuse from very beginning, because it was being given to people on the premise that they had a disease of the mind. When I realised that people were basically being given it to control behaviour, it was just like the end of the world to me."
He refused to fulfill the compulsory ECT component of his course and ended up transferring to Guy's Hospital in London to complete his studies. After he qualified as a GP, and prior to embarking on his psychiatry studies, he achieved higher qualifications in obstetrics and paediatrics.
His long-held belief is that mental distress is a valid human experience that doesn't emanate from a malfunctioning, diseased brain.
He believes that abolishing ECT would allow a psychosocial, humanistic understanding of mental distress to emerge, paving the way for prevention and healing, and facilitating a person-centred approach, through counselling, cognitive therapy, and other techniques that are based on individual hearts and souls.
"Mental distress results from the problems of living," he says. "Using ECT is the equivalent of sending the TV or computer for repair if the programmes are not to one's liking."
Many studies have demonstrated that memory loss is the first obvious result of electric shock treatment, plunging the patient into a state of confusion, fear and vulnerability. Other areas of intellectual functioning are also compromised, as is the ability to experience the full range of feelings, creating a state of emotional numbness.
"To isolate a depressed, suffering human being from their thoughts, behaviours, and the workings of their world is a tragedy beyond words, as it reduces them, and the rest of us, to a chemical soup encapsulated in skin.
In this soup, there is no place for uniqueness, imagination, will, acceptance, compassion, love, peace, creativity, personal freedom and the unfathomable depths of the human spirit."
Aside from the mental damage ECT causes, brain autopsies on patients have revealed physical damage. Some elderly people have died from strokes and pneumonia in the days and weeks following a course of ECT treatment, as they are known to do after any major trauma.
"Given these effects, it would be inconceivable that anyone in their right mind would sanction such a procedure for administration to a developing foetus as it floats in fluid suspended within the uterus, with the goal of improving its 'well-being'," says Dr Corry. "You'd have to ask whether the adult brain is any less fragile? It is self-evident that ECT is unsustainable, because if it were seeking a licence today, it would be rejected on safety grounds."
"ECT is a holocaust of the brain, and a brutal final solution which must be stopped," he says. "The time to abolish electric shock treatment is now."
If you would like to share your experiences of ECT as part of a research study, please contact the Institute of Psychosocial Medicine in Dun Laoghaire (01) 2800084 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit a website, wellbeingfoundation.com, which is dedicated to the abolition of ECT