PsychOdyssey Editorial, February 11, 2011
The February 8 online issue of Psychiatric Times offers an interesting article about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as shock therapy. PsychOdyssey took note of it since recently we reviewed a book about ECT by Carol Kivler, a courageous consumer who found ECT to be her silver bullet (and who will tell us about it in our next PyschOdyssey TV interview being taped February 15).
The article, entitled “Electroconvulsive Therapy–The Second Most Controversial Medical Procedure”, is by Dr. Charles H. Kellner, a professor of psychiatry and chief of the division of geriatric psychiatry at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Dr. Kellner’s article is a most welcome testimony to the salubrious effects of ECT for those with treatment-resistant depression. He is correct to point out its benefits as well as note the high level of unawareness and even prejudice of ECT opponents against this method of treatment. Family members of loved ones for whom ECT could bring relief after all else fails should appreciate his stout defense of the admittedly controversial therapy.
But Dr. Kellner does a disservice to those seeking clarity about ECT by comparing its opponents to those who oppose abortion. The two procedures are wholly different, done for wholly different reasons, and have wholly different moral considerations.
As a medical man, Dr. Kellner makes an incredible confession when he says, “It came as a surprise to me that abortion training is not universally part of what is taught in medical school.” Whatever his political or legal beliefs about the definition of a human person and when and what rights society accords to it, surely as a medical man he cannot deny that abortion kills what surely is a human life and what many honorable and reputable experts, and many honorable and reputable individuals with psychiatric disabilities, believe is a human being, namely a preborn baby in utero.
And some forms, like partial-birth abortion or extraction abortion, kill human lives that are nearly fully formed babies near birth, who are even more evidently human beings and very soon to be human persons, in a most grisly and gruesome fashion. Although Dr. Kellner may not agree, many good, decent, and honorable people think this is murder. It would be a surprise to them that a murder technique would be universally taught in any school. And it might also surprise them that such a wise and accomplished elite psychiatrist who specializes in the care of another class of very vulnerable human beings confesses his own surprise that it is not.
As a geriatric psychiatrist and not an obstetrician, perhaps Dr. Kellner might have done better to draw his comparison of opponents of ECT to opponents of other medical practices relating to the clientele he knows best. Take, for instance, the deinstitutionalization and community placement of those mostly with Alzheimers, who are wrongly warehoused in some state geriatric psychiatric hospitals (like Hagedorn Hospital in New Jersey, about which see PsychOdyssey’s recent editorial), to private nursing homes that could better accommodate them. Many of those who oppose this more correct psychiatric rehabilitation approach are the private nursing homes themselves and the public employees unions at the state psychiatric hospitals. Their opposition, totally self-serving and certainly not in the best interest of the patients in question, bears the same marks of unawareness and prejudice that Dr. Kellner sees in ECT opponents.
ECT can be a wonder therapy for many individuals (and their family members) for whom nothing else works to resolve serious treatment-resistant clinical depression. All beneficiaries of ECT, past and especially future, will surely appreciate Dr. Kellner’s spirited advocacy of this important therapy. To ride a personal hobby horse about those who oppose the morally distinct issue of abortion, which involves not just a patient and her doctor but also an innocent third party, distracts and potentially disrespects the audience Dr. Kellner seeks to persuade—including, most likely, patients in need of ECT (and their family members) who are also morally opposed to abortion.