The Shock Doctor (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One.

Most of Lauretta Bender's  "success stories" were eventually discredited as other mental health professionals took a closer look at many of these patients who were still in the psychiatric system years later.   According to psychiatrist Peter Breggin, his own assessments of two of Bender's survivors were profoundly disturbing.  One patient, who received ten ECT sessions in 1949, had no history of violence until after these treatments.   He grew up to become a multiple murderer and narrowly avoided receiving the death penalty.    Breggin's testimony at his, along with a presentation of  old films  featuring children receiving electroshock, helped sway the jury and led to his being given a life sentence instead.     

The other survivor interviewed by Breggin was Ted Chabasinski.    Transferred out of Bellevue at the age of seven, he would later be placed in the Rockland State Hospital until he was finally released at the age of seventeen.   In describing his hospital ordeal,  Chabasinski spoke of his frequent clashes with sadistic hospital workers and psychiatrists who accused him of not "adjusting."   Much of his his childhood was spent in solitary confinement "waking from nightmare to nightmare in locked rooms with scraps of torn comic books and crusts of bread and my friends the mice, with no one to tell me who I was. When I was seventeen and the shrinks thought they had destroyed me, they set me free.   I was free."

Despite his ordeal, Chabasinski was able to attend college and eventually became a lawyer.  Since 1971, he has been an active voice in the psychiatric survivors movement as well as serving on the board for Support Coalition International and its successor organization, MindFreedom International for which he acted as attorney.     In 1982, he served as chairman for the Coalition to Stop Electroshock which launched a legal initiative to ban ECT in  Berkeley, California.    The American Psychiatric Association campaigned against the initiative but  the measure still passed.  It was eventually overturned following strong campaigning from psychiatrists who condemned the measure as "unnecessary and probably dangerous."  

Ted Chabasinski also acted as attorney for psychiatric survivor Judi Chamberlin, one of the founders of the MadPride movement,  and a number of other prominent anti-psychiatry activists in opposing Eli Lilly and their campaign to suppress damaging information on the anti-psychotic drug, Zyprexa.    The company was eventually ruled to have acted illegally in suppressing information despite an aggressive off-label marketing campaign intended to encourage doctors to prescribe it for patients without due consideration of potential side effects. 

Through victories and setbacks, Ted Chabasinski remains determined to prevent other patients from experiencing what he did as a child.  As he said in a recent interview, "I am 75, not young any more, but my life isn't over yet, and I have rededicated myself to doing all I can so that what was done to me won't happen to others." 

With support from mainstream groups such as the American Psychiatric Association,  many psychiatrists continue to prescribe ECT treatment for underage patients despite the lack of consistent guidelines aside from what local hospitals may recommend.    While adults receiving ECT often report loss of short-term memory and other cognitive symptoms, it is still unclear what long-term consequences of ECT may occur in in children and adolescents whose nervous systems are still forming.   Despite the efforts of activists such as Ted Chabasinski and others, proper oversight on the use of ECT with minors remains limited.    

So, how many children actually receive ECT treatment?   Actual statistics are difficult to find given the reluctance of many clinics to publicize that ECT is being used on underage patients.   According to a 2000 book providing a 50-year review on ECT use in minors, an estimated 500 to 3,500 children/adolescents receive ECT each year in the United States alone with equivalent figures in the United Kingdom.   Since organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association continue to advocate the use of ECT,  the only real resistance to ECT treatment in minors come from anti-psychiatry groups and the testimony of adult survivors, many of whom describe experiences similar to Ted Chabasinski's. 

Still, some states such as Texas and Colorado have banned ECT use for children under the age of eighteen while others only allow its use with a court order.   In many other jurisdictions, it's use is left up to treating physicians and the American Psychiatric Association continues to crusade for making ECT more widely available with adolescents suffering from treatment-resistant depression.   While the kind of barbaric ECT practiced in the 1940s and 1950s are largely a thing of the past, the legacy left behind by Lauretta Bender and many of her colleagues will not be so easily forgotten.

As for Lauretta Bender herself, she continues to be honoured for her contributions to biological psychiatry and the Bender-Gestalt drawing test is still widely used.   After giving up on the use of ECT with her young patients in the 1950s, she continued to teach and to serve as a consultant with various organizations helping disturbed children until her death in 1987.    Her obituary, while describing her long experience treating disturbed children, makes no mention of her ECT research.







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