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Zapped: Breaking news about electroshock therapy

Photo: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

Eyes peer at me, then quickly look away.

Because they are afraid.

Because they sense the humiliation.

Because they know not what else to do.

Stretchers in front of me. Stretchers behind me.

Some poor soul being dragged where none of us want to go.

Who would have thought that a single shriek could fill the universe?

(from Burstow, 2017, The Other Mrs. Smith (novel on shock)

This blog article is about ECT (electroshock "therapy") -- a "treatment" for which professional misrepresentation has always been the norm. In fact, if you go to a standard psychiatric institution, the treatment will be described to you as more or less "safe and effective," this despite the fact that survivors have been protesting for years that it has ruined their lives, so impairing their memory that they can barely get through the day (see this link for examples of survivor testimony), despite studies such as Ross (2006) which show that it has no special efficacy, and despite numerous studies that establish definitively that it causes permanent memory loss and is brain-damaging (e.g., see Breggin, 1991). 

Over the years there has been significant groundbreaking news about electroshock -- or at least news that by normal standards would be considered groundbreaking. For example, in 2007 Howard Sackeim, a professional who had long been a leading ECT proponent, along with his colleagues, in what was by far the largest and most meticulous study in shock history, proved that every single type of electroshock is damaging -- despite the repeated claims of the establishment that some kinds are not (see the following). Indeed, in all cases, impairment and damage was established at a probability level greatly exceeding the accepted standard of "statistical significance." Now here we have a finding that did nothing less than scientifically uphold what shock survivors have been saying and protesting over for decades and which disproved the standard line. In other words, this is pretty close to the meaning of "groundbreaking."

So, how, you might wonder, did the electroshock industry respond to this groundbreaking news? Strange though this may seem to people who expect members of the medical profession to prioritize the well-being of their patients -- given the study was irrefutable and yet that the finding ran counter to their own professional interest, they responded by completely ignoring it. Indeed the much anticipated Canadian Psychiatric Association's position paper came out on shock within a couple of years of this study and not only did  it fail to integrate the findings of this study, it did not even mention the study's existence.

Such is the real nature of this industry. 

Now recently there has been another breaking development in the electroshock story, and it is this breaking news that I want to focus on for most of the remainder of this article. Why? Because it is important. Because it can immediately be acted on. Moreover, given that the safety of people's brains hang in the balance, it is high time that ground-breaking developments in this area were brought out of the shadows. 

The development began with a lone and indeed courageous American electroshock survivor who had the brilliant idea of launching a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturers of the shock machines. Now the vast majority of the shock machines used around the world are made by a tiny handful of manufacturers that dominate the area -- in particular Somatics and Mecta -- and so it was quickly apparent who to charge. What was not clear was which law firm would take such a suit. Nor was it easy to find one. Determined, nonetheless, the survivor in question -- Deborah Schwartzkopff -- wrote to over 200 law firms in the U.S., looking for one that would.

Who eventually stepped up to the plate is the firm DK Law Group. Having done their homework and networked extensively with both survivors and credible professionals, DK Law Group began by initiating a class-action lawsuit in California though soon also began working on class-action lawsuits in other jurisdictions around the world. The basis of the claims is failure to comply with obligations to inform people about the danger posed by these machines. Now it was not hard to find former "patients" who were painfully aware of having been damaged and who hungered for justice. Moreover, a huge number of professional experts on ECT lined up to support the claims of the survivors/plaintiffs, including a former director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And in October of 2018, the judge in the California case ruled that there was enough evidence against the manufacturers that the case could proceed to trial. To quote from the summary provided by expert Dr. Peter Breggin and by the plaintiff's attorney David Karen, the court determined:

- A reasonable jury could find that the ECT device manufacturer failed to warn plaintiffs' treating physicians of brain damage resulting from ECT, leading to the oft-reported and acknowledged symptoms of permanent memory loss and cognitive impairment.

- A reasonable jury could find that the ECT device manufacturer was in violation of the relevant federal regulations.

- A reasonable jury could find that plaintiffs suffered brain damage as a result of ECT.

- A reasonable jury could find that the ECT device manufacturer caused plaintiffs brain damage through failure to warn their treating physicians of brain injury, or alternatively by failing to investigate and report allegations of brain damage and permanent memory loss to the FDA, so that information would be available to the public.

The next development in the story happened just as a case was about to go to trial. As the industries surrounding psychiatry so often do to avoid judgments against them being on record, on the eve of the trial, the giant ECT manufacturer Somatics offered the plaintiffs a settlement, which was acceptable to the plaintiffs. Correspondingly, having for decades denied that ECT causes brain damage, following the settlement, as reported by DK Law Group, Somatics inserted an admission of permanent brain damage in its new disclosure about the risks accompanying the use of their shock machines.

Why did they issue such an admission of damage? Presumably to stop from being sued in the future for failure to issue a warning. That said, irrespective of the reason, the mind-blowing truth is that the shock manufacturers are now acknowledging the horrific danger attending their "safe and effective" product. An acknowledgment, significantly, that can be used by other survivors suing for damages. What we have, in other words, is a development that is nothing short of a game-changer!

And what, you might wonder, has happened on the professional scene as a result of this groundbreaking development? Have any of the legions of pro-shock professionals commented publicly on the fact that the information they give patients conflicts with what the shock machine manufacturers are now saying? Not as far as I can see. Have they in any substantial way altered their claims about the safety of ECT? Again, the answer would appear to be no. And to go further, has the mainstream press even commented on this groundbreaking development?  So far, almost not at all. All the more reason that it behooves us in the alternate press to take up this story and to make the facts known.

We now have official acknowledgment of permanent brain damage coming right from within centre of the industry. And we now have a law firm determined to press ever more lawsuits. And it's critical that people know about it. Also that insofar as it relates to us, that all of us begin to act on it. Bottom line: Warn your friends if they are considering ECT. Do not believe the standard line about ECT if it is fed to you. And if you have been subjected to electroshock and you want justice, do consider filling out a questionnaire at ectjustice.com or writing the law firm committed to pursuing these cases. The times have now changed and there may well be something that you can do about the damage done to you.

Correspondingly, if you are a member of the press and you are assigned to the medical beat, stop doing "business as usual"; that is, stop upholding the lies fed you by the psychiatric establishment; instead, start lobbying your editors to let you tell the real story of what has been happening here. Surely your role is not to be an apologist for the establishment but to uncover truth that brought you into journalism in the first place.

More generally, readers, fellow activists, concerned citizens, be on the alert, for you can expect even more groundbreaking news in this area. Whether the professional shock advocates know it or not, after decades of lies by professionals passing as truth, the tide as it were, has now "turned" when it comes to electroshock. The truth can no longer be hidden. Changes are on the horizon. It is not only lawsuits -- though we can expect way more of these. Plans for a whole variety of different types of acts of resistance are afoot -- for at this point survivors and their allies are geared for action.

In fact a major anti-shock initiative will be happening right here in Toronto this May.

And what do the Toronto anti-shock activists have in store for us? Something dramatic and gutsy never before tried in shock history. For survivors and their allies are determined to bring an end to this barbaric treatment once and for all. 

For details, keep your eyes peeled for the next "Zapped" article soon to appear in rabble.

Dr. Bonnie Burstow is best known as a philosopher, a social theorist, an antipsychiatry activist, a feminist psychotherapist, and a prolific author. She is a faculty member in Adult Education and Community Development in OISE at the University of Toronto.

Photo: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

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