How Far Have We Come?

September 3, 2009 at 11:13 am

Rush's Tranquilizing Chair

What then of… our vitamin capsules, our electric therapies, our ultra-violet lamps, our shortwave treatments and our shock therapy — in particular our shock therapy, whether it be insulin or metrazol or electric! Do we use these as empirically as our predecessors did their leeches and their bleedings?… I ask the question, are we, in the light of others who come after us, going to be accused of being users of stupid, bizarre or crude methods? Will they think us no better than quacks? Will they read our shock therapy methods with horror and say, “Why, they should have used baseball bats— it would have been just as productive of results”? — C. C. Burlingame (psychiatrist), 1941

There was a time when madness was widely believed to be the result of demonic possession. Brutal punishments masked as therapy were carried out upon unwilling victims called patients. Whips, chains and small cages were employed upon these “madmen.” All manner of apparatus were applied to bring a “patient” to a state of near drowning among other things. The idea was to make the host uninhabitable for the possessor — drive the demon out, thereby relieving them of their madness. For those who made a distinction between insanity and demonic possession, the treatment was still the same — punishment employed to break the person of their insanity. Even as the middle ages came to an end and the world was supposed to be coming around to the light, these practices persisted — all baseless and, of course, without consideration of consent.

In 1769, before we could even boast of nationhood , Benjamin Rush came back from receiving his MD in Edinburgh to bring his particular brand of psychiatry to America. It was, much like its predecessors, as abusive as it was baseless. He believed among other things, that madness was an arterial disease which could be treated by limiting the flow of blood to the brain by limiting mobility of the patient. For this he created the “tranquilization chair.” He was a proponent of starvation and depravation of necessities, inflicting pain and inciting terror  and shame as methods for the treatment of madness.

Lying, as a vice, is said to be incurable. The same thing may be said of it as a disease… Its only remedy is, bodily pain, inflicted by the rod, or confinement, or abstinence from food… Terror acts powerfully upon the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness. Fear accompanied with pain and the sense of shame has sometimes cured the disease.

For all of this terror, shame and fear; you’d think modern psychiatry would make some attempt to distance itself from Rush but he is hailed as the “father of American psychiatry” and the logo for the American Psychiatric Association bears his image to this day. It is their DSM that today determines which behaviors are diseases and what the accepted course of action will be.

As late as the end of the nineteenth century, water boarding was  being performed not on our despised enemies but on the troubled and troubling people in our own asylums. This is a procedure that cannot seriously be considered anything other than torture and  it’s been wrapped up and packaged it as therapy.

In 1938, Ugo Cerletti began using electric shock to induce seizures on people diagnosed with schizophrenia, having seen the calming effect it had on pigs about to be butchered. It was clearly and openly an attempt at damaging the brain in a controlled manner. Unfortunately for the many people that have undergone the procedure, there is no way to control the complicated and sensitive brain’s response to the amount of electricity used to induce a convulsion and there is no scientific basis to support its use. That hasn’t stopped it from happening  without consent and proponents of it to this day cannot tell you how it’s really supposed to work. Approximately 100,000 people in America are being administered electroshock “therapy” every year despite its class 3 designation with the FDA and the fact that it’s done little other than make people more pliable for the people around them. It essentially takes the fight out of its victims.

And what of the lobotomy? It was a process so crude and brutal and invasive as to be difficult now to comprehend, yet it was performed on thousands in our nation’s hospitals. Walter Freeman made an entire industry out of it which was as much showmanship as medicine, if not more. This was all allowed to continue despite the fact that it was poorly masked social control with no scientific basis other than the fact that separating brain tissue is, in the simplest of terms, brain damage.

These sundry procedures produce “beneficial” results by reducing the patient’s capacity for being human. The philosophy is something to the effect that it is better to be a contented imbecile than a schizophrenic. — Harry Stack Sullivan (psychiatrist) 1940.

The age of the lobotomy was brought to an end by the introduction of Thorazine which could, in effect, perform the duties of restraints, shock and lobotomy. Sadly, bottling the effects of torture as treatment has pretty much brought us up to date, all the way to 2009. In varying degrees and with different names and partial theories, little else has changed and that is the problem. For many, that is how they are being used — as a chemical version of more blatant abuses.

New methods haven’t come into being because old methods were widely disproved but because they’ve become less favorable and often, less fashionable. Thorazine brought about the pharmaceutical age because it was cheaper to dispense it than it was to keep people in hospitals. New medicines come into being because they are more profitable and new pharmaceutical campaigns come along to fill the void they’ve sold us despite the fact that the drugs are incredibly unpredictable in their effects.

I have to wonder how an industry, arguably a religion at this point, has been allowed to operate as it has for so long. How far have we come if modern psychiatry has as much power as ever despite having no more proof of a chemical imbalance or the facts behind electroshock than of demonic possession or water boarding, tranquilizing chairs and starvation as therapy? How is it that we allow physical and chemical restraint, bodily harm and loss of function, all over the expressed protest of victims we still call patients? Burlingame may have been right. We are now approaching a time in which we may say that electroshock has little more going for it than a baseball bat. The question now is whether it’s any better since we’ve put the effects of shock (and all the rest) in a bottle.

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Enough Already! The Tip of the Iceberg?


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