Why I ...believe the use of electroshock therapy on children is unconscionable

October 29, 1999

Steve Baldwin Professor of psychology, Teeside University

Most people do not know that children as young as three have been given electro-shock treatment, sometimes without parental consent. The most vulnerable and needy members of society - infants, children and teenagers - are often given toxic drugs and when these do not work, they can be given electric shock as well. These children need compassion, understanding and protection. It is indefensible and unconscionable to give them electroshock.

In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health does not keep or make public figures relating to the number of children shocked. In the United States, it is estimated that between 500 and 3,500 are given electroshock yearly.

Electroshock has been used on children since 1947. An electric current is passed through the brain to stimulate a physical condition. It is equivalent to having a closed head injury and a major epileptic fit. It is a major trauma that does permanent damage to the child's developing neurological

system, a form of abuse masquerading as treatment.

Psychiatrists say they use electroshock as a "treatment of last resort" but in fact often use it as a first or second choice. They say it is safe, reliable and effective. This is not true. In the old days, before they used sedatives and muscle relaxants, spasms caused horrific injuries. Now, pre-op drugs calm the spasms and mask the pain. If you talk to children after electroshock, they say it was painful. They also say the memory loss is permanent and irreversible. I have met adults who had electroshock as children, and they still suffer from memory loss.

The children involved are often very bright. They may have been abused, neglected or simply left unchallenged. Referred to psychiatrists, they find themselves drugged, sometimes hospitalised, and then subjected to electroshock. The treatment they receive is based on the idea that they have a "broken brain" that needs fixing. On this biological view, you look for a magic bullet - a pill. If that does not work, you turn to technology in the form of a shiny machine - the electric shock machine - to do the trick. The public has been duped into thinking this is the only way.

There are 230 tried-and-tested therapies that could be used instead. Behaviour modification, family therapy, counselling - these are all effective.

I have worked in a maximum security hospital for three years. I have treated some of the most dangerous people in Britain. If it is possible to help them without drugs or shock, why is it not possible to do the same with disturbed children? What reason could there be to send electrical current through their brains? This is a barbarous practice.

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