Protesters call for a ban on electroshock

By Fiona Marshall
Yukon News Reporter
February 9, 1996

Eleanor Velarde slowly turned to face the 40-odd people carrying placards and wearing buttons opposed to the use of ECT.

She was crying and unable to speak for a moment. When she did open her mouth, it was to apologize.

"This is an emotional issue for me, as you can see," she told the demonstrators gathered in the lobby of the legislative building to protest the recent arrival of an ECT machine at Whitehorse General Hospital.

"My association with ECT (electro-convulsive treatment) is through my mother, who was suicidal for 45 years of her life and who had electroshock throughout those 45 years, and who ended up taking her life," she said, wiping her red eyes and swallowing hard.

"I was five years old when I went to see my mother after she had had electroshock. The shock for me was that my mother didn't recognize me."

Velarde paused, choking back her tears.

"The last shock treatment she had was when I was about 17. I remember visiting her at the hospital and she was just like a zombie. It's awfully hard to look at your mother and see a zombie. (ECT) is really inhumane. It's giving people Alzheimer's."

For the next hour, people with similarly harrowing stories spoke to the crowd. While she listened, Velarde cried and hugged her friends. Nurses told tales of their experiences with the treatment, which is widely used by psychiatrists to treat severely depressed patients of all ages.

Leonard Roy Frank was once one of those patients.

The San Francisco resident is in Whitehorse this week to help raise public awareness about the dangers of ECT, which he called "cruel, dehumanizing, brainwashing, brain-damaging and life-threatening."

He has had 85 electroshock and insulin-coma treatments since 1962, when his parents committed him to a hospital mental ward because they didn't approve of his lifestyle.

The doctors recommended he be admitted to the care of a state mental hospital because he "grew withdrawn and asocial, couldn't or wouldn't work and spent most of his time reading or doing nothing, grew a beard, ate only vegetarian food and lived the life of a beatnik -- to a certain extent," he said.

He spent nine months in the mental ward during which time he underwent extensive electroshock therapy.

"It left gaping holes in my memory, reduced my energy level. My university education was totally obliterated."

"My high school education was totally obliterated. The years after I spent holed up in my apartment, trying to relearn everything I had lost."

Since his release, he has devoted all his time and energy to abolishing the use of electroshock therapy.

His 30-year fight brought him to Whitehorse at the invitation of the Second Opinion Society. It is determined to see the device removed from Whitehorse General Hospital.

"If the same voltage applied to the brain in electroshock was applied to the heart, it would kill a person," he said.

Frank has devoted his life to researching the procedure, reading studies, and writing books and articles.

He has developed some theories about why the treatment he calls barbaric is still so widely used.

Electroshock reinforces the biological model of mental illness that psychiatrists survive on, he said.

"And it is very, very profitable for them. A psychiatrist now can do five or six treatments in a morning. That means a lot of money for him."

In the U.S., a psychiatrist who uses ECT makes about twice as much as one who won't use it, he said.

ECT is almost always covered under people's medical insurance. One study he cited shows that nearly 80 per cent of the people were covered under Medicaid or some other insurance.

Three years ago, a series of about 10 ECT treatments would cost about $54,000, he said.

"It also creates a revolving door in the system. Once they get shocked, these patients go back time and again.

"The relapse rate of people (who were shocked), who are not followed up with drugs or maintenance electroshock, is 50 to 60 per cent. And that was cited in a pro-ECT article!

"This is really a treatment of last resort for depressed persons who are resistive to anti-depressive drugs.

"If they don't work, then the next step is electroshock. It's a way of shutting up the patient...

"Unfailingly, at least for a while, it works. This person can no longer remember what they were complaining about.

"The memory loss is a direct result of the shock. It makes them forget why they were depressed."

And many ECT `survivors' actually fake being happy because they are so terrified of being shocked again, he said.

Although there has been no thorough study, there are indications ECT use is on the rise.

For example, at a hospital in Berkeley, California, 50 people were given shock treatment in 1982, he said.

The hospital's most recent figures indicated 150 people received it in the past year.

A decade ago in San Francisco, only one hospital had an ECT machine. In 1990, four did.

It is the elderly who are getting more of these treatments, said Frank. They are the ones most vulnerable because they are left without family and friends to support them.

"They're receiving it more often than ever before. These people are elderly and `difficult,' maybe residents in nursing homes.

"ECT is a quick way to deal with them. I call is a kind of informal euthanasia program."

Frank cited another study which looked at the longer-term effects of ECT on those over 80.

One group of 37 received ECT while 28 others received drug therapy.

"Within one year, 10 of the 37, that's 27 per cent of the ECT group, were dead. Only one out of the 28 was dead."

A recent USA Today article compiled five studies which showed that the death rate for the elderly receiving ECT was about one in 126, said Frank.

And there is absolutely no scientific proof ECT works, he added."It is an unproven experimental procedure.

"And we use it on citizens. It carries with it enormous risks."

He called it"brainwashing" and compared it to tactics used on American soldiers captured by the Chinese during the Korean war.

"Electro-convulsive brainwashing. That's what it should be called," he told the protesters."Because that's what it really is.

"The brain is the very centre of a person, the very spirit... It is what makes them that person. This takes it away."

Frank told the demonstrators have a wonderful opportunity to stop ECT from spreading to the Yukon.

"It is everywhere, and now they have brought it to the Yukon. And they're getting ready to start up the brain-burn factory at one of your local hospitals. But you can help stop it."

In 1974 , as the co-ordinator of Network Against Psychiatric Assault, Frank successfully campaigned for legislation regulating the use of ECT in California.

In 1997, a watered-down version of what he and his colleagues had campaigned for became law in that state. Thirty states now have similar legislation.

In 1982, Frank received international recognition when he won a referendum vote in Berkeley, California, to have ECT banned there. People voted 61 per cent in favor of getting rid of the machines.

"It was really a landmark moment," he said somewhat wistfully."For a four- or five-week period there was no ECT."

But then a group of psychiatrists appealed the referendum to the high court, which said the vote violated the doctor-patient relationship.

"But this is you're opportunity to stand up and be counted. I urge all of you to campaign for this to be banned.

"A community which has ECT is not free. It is a public-safety issue. The psychiatrists have never made their case scientifically."

Health minister Willard Phelps listened to Frank and the others tell their horror stories about the use of ECT.

After they finished, he stepped forward to explain the Yukon government is not responsible for bringing the machine here.

The decision was made by the hospital's board, he said, and the government shouldn't interfere in hospital matters for"political" reasons.

"The hospital board was appointed from recommendations made by all kinds of community groups," he said."They make the decisions as to the kinds of equipment and programs.

"There are safeguards in place to make sure politicians aren't intruding in those decisions for political purposes.

"But I believe in the kind of protest you are staging here in enabling concerned citizens to get their views heard."

Phelps said he was"touched" by the stories he heard, but declined to give his personal views on ECT.

He suggested the protesters take their concerns to their MLAs. He suggested the banning of ECT could be debated in the legislature.

NDP MLA Margaret Commodore also attended the rally. When she was a nurse at Whitehorse General some years ago, she once witnessed an ECT being administered, she said.

"It was a horror to watch, just like it's a horror to have to listen to these stories. I sure wouldn't want to experience what I saw in the operating room of Whitehorse General Hospital those years ago."

She invited the protesters to speak to her caucus colleagues at their regular Friday luncheon meeting.