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The history of psychiatry is replete with error. You have lobotomies, ineffective drugs, and the bizarre hypothesis of the Oedipal complex. But within this panoply of poor science, you also have things that did good. Surprisingly, shock therapy was one of these things.
The history of shock therapy is, let’s just say, shocking. While initially used as a way to try and treat schizophrenia and similar diseases, the treatment would go on to be abused, misused, and eventually reappropriated into something more ethical and functional. This is a brief history of this electrifying trajectory.
The Origins of Shock
Shock therapy was discovered by the Italian neurologist Ugo Cerletti in the 1930s. He had noticed that pigs who were given electric shocks prior to slaughter would experience a temporary state of elation. He thought, which seemed reasonable at the time, that a similar state could be induced in humans.
The main way in which Cerletti thought these electric shocks worked was through the convulsions they produced. The reasoning went like this: the practice would induce a few convulsions, the patient would appear a little better afterward, and voila, we have a new form of medicine.
To fine-tune his would-be treatment, Cerletti built a demo apparatus to use on frogs and, as was common at the time, dogs. By showing that these animals could reliably undergo convulsions after being shocked in very specific ways, prospective practitioners might adopt his method. Again, Cerletti’s logic was that these seizures or convulsions were thought to be medicinal.
Cerelliti worked his way up to human testing and, after a hefty round of early trials, began to advertise the practice in world tours with his partner, Lucio Bini. The advertising was successful, which led to its popularization in the world of physical psychiatry.
A Sordid History
Shock therapy was a runaway hit; it seemed to alleviate everything from bad temperament to indigestion. And, because of this, it was used indiscriminately for decades.
One of the most notorious places it was used was in the psych ward. Here, it was often employed excessively and sometimes even abusively. If a patient was disobedient, an unprincipled therapist might use it as a way to force them obsequious.
Outsider of the abuse, the therapy also had some high-profile failures. Among these included treatments for Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway — both of which were severely depressed. Unfortunately, the treatment failed in both cases and each ultimately took their own life.
Because of the growing awareness of shock therapy and its failures, the practice began to fade in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This fall from the spotlight was accelerated by the advent of psychiatric drugs that were far more effective and untangled in a PR nightmare. The therapy would, however, make a comeback.
Shock Therapy Today
The shock therapy we use today has a far more disciplined demeanor than that which existed in the mid-20th century. While it is still used to shock patients, the practice is no longer abused or given without consent.
Rebranded electroconvulsive therapy (or ECT for short), the aim of the practice is similar to its original intent — to treat those with certain types of depression. In many cases, it’s given to those with bipolar disorder or severe depression who haven’t responded well to more traditional medications.
Today the treatment is used in modern hospitals on about 100,000 people a year. While not as popular as it was in its heyday, the practice of ECT and its treatments are carefully monitored in hospitals. As a result, it has helped countless individuals with crippling depression.