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The time to strike is now: A call for anti-electroshock activism

Device for electroconvulsive therapy. Photo: AntaresGreen/Wikimedia Commons

The purpose of this blog article is to provide you with some critical counter-hegemonic information. The article also constitutes a call to action. More specifically, it is a call for action against one of the most horrendous of the current day psychiatric atrocities -- the horror euphemistically known as "electroconvulsive therapy."  

The context for this article and for this rallying call includes the following:

1. The use of electroshock therapy (ECT) continues to grow, although it has been shown conclusively to be both ineffective and brain-damaging. Moreover, as both professionals and ECT survivors have long demonstrated, it destroys memory and routinely leaves people's lives in shambles.

2. While ECT is unacceptable and is an act of violence no matter who is being subjected to it, ECT is disproportionately used against women. Note in this regard, despite the erroneous impression created by movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in every single period when shock has been given and in every jurisdiction in which it prevails, two to three times as many women as men are subjected to this brain-damaging treatment (see Burstow, 2015) -- a reality all the more heinous when, as the largest study in ECT history, the Sackeim study, shows, women are considerably more damaged by this "treatment" than men. Added to this, ECT is disproportionately administered to the elderly. In light of these findings, for over a decade now various organizations have demonstrated against ECT on the day before Mother's Day, with the group that began the tradition -- Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault Assault -- brandishing the slogan, "Stop Shocking Our Mothers and Grandmothers."

3. A novel that describes the dynamics involved, The Other Mrs. Smith, was recently shortlisted for a prestigious literary award, which increases the chances of getting it into more and more hands, thereby galvanizing a public awakening.

4. There has been a stunning breakthrough in a California class-action lawsuit against the shock machine manufacturers (and yes, the machines used in California are identical to the ones being used in every state throughout the world, and indeed are produced and marketed by the same companies). As psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin, an expert witness in the case, informs us, the California class-action lawsuit against the shock machine manufacturers has yielded exactly what informed critics of ECT would have predicted -- in essence, the determination that:

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

In light of this development, an agreement has been struck for compensation for the plaintiffs. (And yes, by the way, these are the very machines and procedures that year after year the industry has assured the unsuspecting public are new, improved, safe, and effective -- so much for professional pronouncements! And to think that most of the media still "falls for" such propaganda! That said, for this breakthrough, we need to thank the law firm D.K. Law Group, who took the case, the gutsy plaintiffs, and the various honest professionals -- and there were legions -- who provided data that "belied" the official industry line and/or gave testimony. Most of all, I would like to acknowledge the courage of one woman shock survivor, whose vision led the way for this class-action suit and who did a gargantuan amount of the legwork to make it happen: the as-yet "unsung hero," Deborah Schwartzkopff. I would add, you can soon expect similar lawsuits throughout the world. If you are a victim of ECT, I would encourage you to write to: ECT[at]dk4law.com.

The final context -- and a particularly compelling one it is -- is a personal decision that was made a few months ago by still another courageous woman shock survivor: Ontario resident Connie Neil. Having been profoundly damaged by shock and having both testified and organized against it for years, a short time ago Connie approached Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA), announcing her intention to go on a hunger strike against electroshock, and asking CAPA to organize it. After she had received her doctor's approval and advice on how to do a hunger strike safely, CAPA's answer was a resounding yes.

I ask the reader to try to take in the enormity of what has happened here. At a time when society is finally making advances against ECT, what Connie has handed us is nothing short of sensational. Mounting a hunger strike is in line with the best of mad activism -- note, in this regard, the Fast for Freedom Hunger Strike of 2003 against the American Psychiatric Association. It dramatizes, makes concrete, and in the process, has the chance of grabbing the public's attention. Please note, that the master of non-violent resistance Gandhi himself emphasized the importance of symbolism in non-violent action -- and note that, what Connie is handing us is an enormously potent symbol -- nothing less than an 80-year-old woman shock survivor who is going on a hunger strike to try to stop the horror that was visited on her from continuing to be visited on others. A symbol like this drops in one's lap once in a lifetime. As informed citizens, we are duty-bound to make the most of it.  

Hence CAPA's increased initiative during the week of Mother's Day this year. And hence this call for solidarity. This call to action.  

So what exactly is CAPA planning this year? The agenda, as it has evolved, is as follows:

  • On May 10, at noon a press conference will be held in Toronto. In it CAPA members, including Connie, and former MPP Cheri DiNovo will speak out against shock -- the public funding of it, the very existence of it -- and clarify what CAPA is doing this year and why.
  • On May 11, in alliance with a number of different organizations -- who are co-sponsoring or endorsing -- starting at noon, there will be a huge public anti-shock demonstration held on the grounds of the Ontario provincial legislature, complete with speeches, testimonials, and protest songs. 
  • On May 12, at a location still to be determined, the multi-day hunger strike per se will begin. Connie will be striking, accompanied by supporters. Optimally, she will also be accompanied by women and men fasting in solidarity with her. The days of the hunger strike will similarly be replete with speeches and testimonials, and hopefully with frequent interaction with the media. The pièce de la résistance, of course, is Connie herself. Who can just dismiss an 80-year-old shock survivor so committed that she is in essence putting her frail body on the line? 

So what can you do? Or to put this another way, how might you yourself get involved?

If you are an organization, examples of things that you can do are:

  • Help CAPA publicize the event
  • Agree to co-sponsor or endorse
  • Help garner sympathetic press
  • Arrange a parallel action in your neck of the woods, possibly your own hunger strike
  • Send statements and testimonials to be read
  • Pressure your own legislators to defund, or, better yet, disallow electroshock.
  • Bring a contingent of people to Toronto to take part as hunger strikers and/or supporters of the action. 

Individuals may similarly join.

Anyone or any organization that wishes to become involved, whether by taking up one or more of these suggestions, or in any other way, you might begin by emailing the Coalition at capacommittee[at]gmail.com.

In ending, I would encourage as many people and groups as possible to join in this action and/or to create an anti-ECT protest of your own. The long and the short is, it is time for the lies about ECT to stop. And beyond that, it is time for the very use of ECT to stop.

What we have here is a social justice issue. What we have here is a feminist issue. Despite the "pseudo-medical" overlay, what we have here is a crime against humanity. Moreover, the momentum is with us.

And the "time to strike" is now.

The author wishes to acknowledge an earlier version of this article may be found at the following link and that she herself is involved in a number of the actions highlighted in the article.

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.

The Anti-Electroshock Proclamation

We who care,

We who are committed to decency,

We who behold with horror the disrespect for human life around us,

We who shudder at the knowledge

Of women whose memory has been turned into ember and ashes,

Of families brutally torn asunder by pulse waves or sine waves,

Of the elderly, whose final life reward is electrocution,

We who hold this fearful knowledge can be silent no longer.

LEGISLATORS, on this, the week of Mother's Day, we hold you directly accountable and call on you to withdraw your authorization for electroshock.

FELLOW CITIZENS who think this "practice" stopped decades ago, on this the week of Mother's Day,

We tell you that the carnage continues and that you too are responsible. 

On this the day before Mother's Day, May___,  20__, as survivors and allies, we come together to raise our voices in protest,

And we vow to return,

Return,

And return again 

Until this abomination

Is no more. (Burstow, 2004)

Photo: AntaresGreen/Wikimedia Commons

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