By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
A 6-year-old child kicked and screamed, as he was dragged down a hallway to receive an experimental shock treatment.
His pleas for help were muffled, when a handkerchief was stuffed into his mouth. He was made a ward of the state, when his mother, who was locked up in a mental hospital, gave birth to him at the facility.
Dr. Lauretta Bender, a renowned psychiatrist, began using electroshock therapy to treat over 500 children diagnosed with mental disorders in 1944 to control their behavior and to calm them down.
“It is the opinion of all observers in the hospital, in the school rooms, of the parents and other guardians that the children were always somewhat improved by the [electric shock] treatment inasmuch as they were less disturbed, less excitable, less withdrawn, and less anxious,” noted Bender in describing her results. “They were better controlled, seemed better integrated and more mature and were better able to meet social situations in a realistic fashion. They were more composed, happier, and were better able to accept teaching or psychotherapy in groups or individually.”
Her results would eventually be incorporated into modern-day treatment for children with autism and other behavioral disorders. But, for the children involved in the initial experiments, some say her findings are wrong and support current advocates’ calls for a stop to the treatment.
Ted Chabasinski, who remembered his experience as a 6-year-old, was among the children used as part of Bender’s experiment.
“Dr. Lauretta Bender, had just begun her infamous series of experiments with shock treatment on children, and she needed more subjects. So I was diagnosed as a childhood schizophrenic, torn away from my foster parents, and given 20 shock treatments,” he explained. “I was dragged down the hallway crying, a handkerchief stuffed in my mouth so I wouldn’t bite off my tongue. And I woke [after the shock treatment] not knowing where I was or who I was, but feeling as if I had undergone the experience of death. After four months of this. I was returned to my foster home. Shock treatment had changed me from a shy little boy who liked to sit in a corner and read to a terrified child who would only cling to his foster mother and cry. I couldn’t remember my teachers. I couldn’t remember the little boy I was told had been my best friend. I couldn’t even find my way around my own neighborhood. The social worker who visited every month told my foster parents that my memory loss was a symptom of my mental illness. A few months later, I was shipped to a state hospital to spend the next 10 years of my life.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) more than 100,000 people receive electroshock treatment (ECT) each year and recommend its usage on children.
“Having access to a rapid and effective treatment such as ECT is especially meaningful in children and adolescents,” notes the APA.
Amy Lutz, the mother of Jonah, a severely autistic 17-year-old, says ECTs saved her child from being institutionalized.
"ECT has been transformative for Jonah's life and for our life," she says. "We went for a period of time - for years and years - where Jonah was raging, often multiple times a day, ferociously. The only reason he's able to be at home with us, is because of ECT."
The Mayo Clinic describes the procedure as being “done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses.”
However, critics say the treatment is barbaric and should be banned. California, Colorado, Tennessee and Texas have already banned the use of ECT on children 16 and under. The description given by critics differs from the Mayo Clinic.
“A child is laid out on a bed and put under anesthesia. Then they are administered a muscle relaxant. The use of muscle relaxants prior to being electroshocked is due to the fact that the convulsions from electroshock are so violent, that patients commonly used to break bones due to the convulsions the electricity produced in the body,” describes one critic. “The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states in their Practice Parameters for Use of Electroconvulsive Therapy with Adolescents that ‘Muscle relaxation is achieved with succinylcholine.’ According to the label for succinylcholine, the drug can cause cardiac arrest, severe, prolonged respiratory muscle paralysis, potentially life-threatening and/or fatal allergic reactions. Next, electrodes are placed on one side of the head of a child or on both temples; the ECT machine is turned on, sending up to 460 volts and between 550 and 1,000 milliamps of electricity (depending on the machine) through the child’s brain. This electricity shocks the brain producing a seizure that lasts about 60 seconds.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports adverse effects from ECT that include cardiovascular (heart) complications; cognition and memory impairment; death; dental/oral trauma; device malfunction; manic symptoms; pain/discomfort; physical trauma; pulmonary (lung) complications; potential worsening of psychiatric symptoms and brain damage. The agency is currently reviewing potential risks caused by usage of the device on children.
"It's a traumatic brain injury," says Dr Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist who has long fought the psychiatric establishment, and campaigns for a total ban on ECT. "The electricity not only travels through the frontal lobes - that's the seat of intelligence, and thoughtfulness and creativity and judgment - it also goes through the temporal lobes - the seat of memory. You are damaging the very expression of the personality, the character, the individuality, and even, if you believe in it, the expression of the soul."
A resolution was passed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People calling for a ban of ECT on children. It states that they, "vehemently opposes any attempt by the FDA to reduce the risk classification of the ECT device."
Rev. Frederick Shaw Jr., the National Director of Public Affairs for the mental health watchdog group, Citizens Commission on Human Rights International (CCHR), supports the NAACP resolution.
"We have to work to provide humane and workable social services for them. We need effective medical — not mind-numbing psychiatric — help; good nutrition; a healthy, safe environment and activities that promote confidence,” said Shaw. “Effective education will also do far more for a troubled person than drugging, shocks, and other damaging psychiatric practices."
So, what method will you use to modify your child’s behavior? Your response may cause your child and others to be shocked.