Tag Archives: electroconvulsive treatment

Worse Than Waterlogged

Ladislas Meduna, courtesy University of Illinois Archive

Ladislas Meduna, courtesy University of Illinois Archive

Much of the therapy for insanity was experimental, and a number of treatments likely inflicted a great deal of harm and discomfort on patients. Something like Pilgrim’s Tub Therapy (see last post) may have resulted in a waterlogged and weakened patient, but would not have otherwise imposed great trauma, particularly since the treatment was almost always voluntary. On the other hand, shock treatments could be both violent and frightening.

In the 1930s, psychiatrists began experimenting with various kinds of treatments that threw the body into convulsions. For some reason–and they did not know why–convulsions often helped patients with depression and other problems. In 1933, Ladislaus (also Ladislas) von Meduna began inducing convulsions through intravenous drugs. He had noticed that schizophrenia and epilepsy could not seem to co-exist, and believed that controllable convulsions would cure schizophrenics.

Preparation for Shock Therapy

Preparation for Shock Therapy

Meduna began experimenting with camphor, but didn’t get reliable results. He moved on to strychnine, thebain, pilocarpin, and pentilenetetrazol, the latter also referred to as metrazol or cardiazol. He injected these substances intramuscularly, but only got reliable results with metrazol. This substance induced quick, violent convulsions that Meduna reported “cured” 50 percent of his subjects. Unfortunately, the convulsions that metrazol induced were so violent that they also caused spinal fractures in 41 percent of Meduna’s patients. Many patients also reported feelings of “impending death and sudden annihilation” before the convulsions started.

Shock Treatments Could be Violent and Frightening

Shock Treatments Could be Violent and Frightening

Eventually another psychiatrist (A. E. Bennett) combined metrazol with curare (a muscle paralyzing agent) to make the convulsions less violent. Later practitioners also sedated patients so they didn’t go through this treatment while conscious–such an obvious step that it should not have taken nearly a decade to hit upon. Eventually, insulin shock therapy won out over the metrazol injections, and they in turn gave way to electroconvulsive shock therapy.

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Psychiatric Care Was Seldom Enjoyable

Missouri State Lunatic Asylum

Though the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians offered little psychiatric care for its patients, they may have been better off without much of what was offered to patients elsewhere over the years. One patient at the Missouri State Lunatic Asylum wrote in 1957–well past the time of Canton Asylum’s operation–about that institution’s “help” for mental patients:

“Patients were generally on [electroshock] treatment twice a week–two days for the women (Mondays and Thursdays) and two days for the men (Tuesdays and Fridays). Promptly at 7:30 treatment patients were rounded up by the cry, ‘Treatment patients git to the door.’ Begging, pleading, crying, and resisting, they were herded into the gymnasium and seated around the edge of the room.

Between them and the shock treatment table was a long row of screens. The table on the other side of the screen held as much terror for most of these patients as the electric chair in the penitentiaries did for criminals… In order to save time, one or more patients were called behind the screen to sit down and take off their shoes while the patient who had just preceded them was still on the table going through the convulsions that shake the body after the electric shock has knocked them unconscious.”

This patient quotation is taken from a history of the Missouri State Lunatic Asylum on the Missouri State Archives website.

Electroshock Therapy Required Several Staff to Administer

Early Electric Treatment for Psychological Effect, WWI era

 

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