15 Traumatizing Medical "Shock Therapies" You Won't Believe Exist

There are a lot of times in history when we have made mistakes in the way that we treat medical or mental illnesses. Stories of treatments that are little more than old wives’ tales abound, and over time, we have developed a greater understanding of how to cure certain things. We know, for example, how to stop cancer, so long as we get it fast enough. This isn’t something that would have been possible 100 years ago.

But on the other hand, we can still have some very misconceived ideas of how to treat people. Some of our treatments end up being traumatizing in themselves, whether they work or not. Just look at our cancer example: while it’s always preferable to stay alive, going through chemotherapy is hugely traumatic and the side effects are brutal. The fact that it works is justification enough for going through it.

The only problem is that people don’t always get a chance to say whether a treatment is helping or harming them more, certainly not until it’s too late. These shock therapies are all incredibly traumatizing, and they are all real – and they have been used on unfortunate patients in the past 50 years or less. Most are still used today. You might not be able to believe what you are reading, but believe us when we tell you that all of this is true. Just pray that you never fall foul of a doctor who recommends one of these shock therapies in your own life!

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15 EST

We’ll start off here, as EST is the best-known form of shock therapy. This treatment was once recommended for just about everything from mental illness, to depression, to homosexuality, to schizophrenia, to epilepsy. Patients would be strapped to a chair or table and would have electric shocks administered at high doses, often without their consent. They would not be anaesthetized, and could often break bones in their thrashing about under the current. The treatment could leave burns on the skin and would often reduce patients to a quivering wreck, losing their mental faculties entirely. These days EST is used only in a small number of cases, and is done under anaesthesia and at a safe dosage to ensure that no harm is done to the patient. It’s a much safer form of the treatment, and can do a lot of good when it is administered properly and to the right levels.

14 Genital Shocks

A more extreme version of the aversion therapy was a shock treatment delivered directly to the genitals. Yes, gentlemen reading this, you are correct to wince. The way it worked was this: wires would be attached to the member in question which were capable of delivering a strong shock. The patient would then be forced to look at images of an increasingly adult quality – the kind of thing that they weren’t supposed to find attractive, according to the doctors. If the member happened to start moving in reaction, the electric shock would be triggered. Over time, it was hoped that this would cause the patient to associate their old habits with pain, so that they would no longer be able to be aroused by the same kind of images or situations. This was enough of a cure, though sometimes it would also be paired with therapy aimed to make the patient feel more interested in women instead.

13 Shocks For Kids

All of this talk of EST makes it pretty clear that it can be harmful and traumatic when administered in the wrong way or for the wrong things. Which is what makes it so shocking that it is being used on children as a way of reforming their behaviour. Behavioural issues and mental disorders are the order of the day at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, where patients as young as six are taken to try to integrate to normal schooling through therapy. The therapy in question? Electrodes are strapped to their arms, and whenever they do something wrong, they are zapped with an electric shock. It sounds like something out of Battle Royale, but instead it’s something that is happening for real. These children were being treated like dogs, not humans – and it’s time for shock treatment to lose its place in behavioural therapy once and for all.

12 The Proto-EST

One of the early forms of EST was known as Lateral Cerebral Diathermia. This was when a patient would be set up with electricity coursing from one side of his brain to the other, with results that were unpredictable at best. It would be done without pain relief of any kind, and could cause all manner of problems such as burns and other injuries. There could also be long-term damage from the treatment, and no one really knew what it was doing to the brain. In essence, patients were being treated as guinea pigs, with no one bothering to fully test out the procedure before applying it. Many people, including some famous names, ended up losing their lives or their minds as a result of EST. One example is Ernest Hemingway, who was given EST and felt that he had lost his remarkable mind as a writer. He ended up taking his own life because he felt that he would never be himself again – and he was probably right.

11 Convulsive Therapy

Convulsive therapy was kind of inspired by EST, in the sense that it was an attempt to induce convulsions, or seizures, in order to cure a psychiatric illness. The idea behind this was that the convulsions, not the actual electric shocks themselves, were the things that were doing good for the patients. So if there was a way to induce convulsions without electricity, why not give it a try? To this end, drugs such as pentylenetetrazol or cardiazol were administered to bring on the seizures. It was thought that if you had epilepsy, you couldn’t possibly have schizophrenia. This meant that bringing on seizures would be a great way to get rid of the schizophrenia. Needless to say, this idea had no basis in reality. Bringing on seizures for no reason is a harmful and traumatic practice which did no good for patients who were already mentally disturbed.

10 Nausea-Inducing Meds

Homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, but before that, using shock therapy to “treat” it was commonplace. One of the other treatments that was used, alongside electric shock therapy, was drug-induced nausea. The doctor would sit the patient down in front of a television screen, projector, or a simple book of images, and give them a drug which made them feel sick constantly. They would then be forced to look at images of same-gender intimacy until they started to feel better with the drugs wearing off. The aim was to make the patient feel sick every time they heard about, thought of, or saw anything related to gay relationships. This barbaric practice could, of course, result in the patient feeling that way – but it certainly wouldn’t “cure” them of being gay, and could simply leave them unable to engage in intimacy of any kind for the rest of their lives.

9 Insulin Shock Therapy

From the 1930s through to the 1950s, insulin shock therapy was actually widely accepted and used frequently. From the name alone you might be able to figure out that it wasn’t as safe or as good an idea as the doctors liked to think. This treatment consisted of injecting a patient with high levels of insulin so that they would regularly fall into a coma – doing so daily was the aim. It would take up to 2 months of the treatment for a schizophrenic patient to “improve”, though it was recorded as lasting for up to 2 years for some patients. It is thought that it was happening into the late 1970s in places like Russia and China, despite falling out of favour rapidly. It wasn’t the terrible disregard for the patient’s wellbeing that prompted this, but rather the fact that it was too time-consuming for the nurses. It has, of course, been totally discredited.

8 Deep Sleep Therapy

Deep Sleep Therapy originated in the early 1900s, but didn’t pick up steam until the 1930s and into the 1960s. It was based around the idea of putting a patient into deep sleep, so that their brains could repair themselves. It is also known as prolonged sleep treatment or continued narcosis. Drugs are used to ensure that a patient stays unconscious for days or even weeks – not a fun thing to begin with, since the doctors are essentially cutting your life short by removing your chance to experience that time. It induces memory loss, and so it was often combined with EST so that the patients would forget how awful the treatment was. It can also result in death, and has done so on a number of documented occasions. Some patients were not even told they would be put to sleep. The scariest part? The most recent documented use of this treatment was in 2011, when a scandal arose in Australia about the combined use of EST and DST on three particular patients.

7 Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

The name of this treatment is wordy enough that it might throw you off in the first place, but it’s not much better than it sounds. It involves putting an electromagnetic coil on the forehead, without any surgery needed. Then magnetic fields are brought to bear on the brain, with the effect of changing the activity levels there. It actually seems to help with depression, but the scary part is that we have no idea why or how it helps. This could be causing a lot of damage that we don’t know about yet. Some of the side effects are fairly scary: they include facial twitches, headaches, light-headedness, seizures, and even hearing loss. All of that points to something going on within the brain on a serious level, so it’s a bit traumatizing to think that this is being done with no real knowledge of the long-term consequences.

6 Deep Brain Stimulation

Here’s a therapy which is currently in use, and which will probably go the same way as EST in the future; we will recognize that we have been giving it to the wrong people. Much like EST, DBS is actually useful for some patients. It’s been shown to cause improvements for those with Parkinson’s disease, for example. But it’s not really all that helpful for OCD sufferers, who are being subjected to it anyway. The treatment involves putting a device inside the brain which transmits electronic pulses. In a way, it’s like having EST coming from inside your head rather than from outside it. Experts caution that this is not in any way a cure for OCD. At best, it can turn an extreme sufferer into a more average sufferer, which isn’t really enough justification to have your brain cut into and messed about with.

5 Magic Mushrooms

What’s the best way to get rid of a mental illness? Replace it with another one! Well, it sounds like a bad joke, but the doctors who recommend this shock therapy may well be sending out the same message. Psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression are the target for treatment with magic mushrooms. The idea is that the shock of the hallucinogen, and the “mystical” experience that goes along with it, will cure the brain of whatever ails it. A very small study suggested that it could improve the mood in those who have depression, but 5% of those involved ended up with paranoia and extreme anxiety instead. So it’s fine to traumatize a few people so long as the rest of the patients feel a bit better, apparently. This is not a fully explored treatment and the effects for the long term just aren’t known, so it’s not to be recommended for anyone with depression.

4 Defibrillation

You probably hear defibrillation and get an image in your head of a TV hospital. The doctor is shouting “Clear!” before placing paddles on a patient’s chest and shocking them back to life. The reality is that a defibrillator can only be used in certain circumstances, and can’t be used on all patients whose hearts stop. When it is used, it can cause so many complications that you might wonder if the patient is any better off. Burns on the chest are quite common, along with injuries to the heart and blood clots. When you think about it, it’s very odd that we haven’t worked out a less destructive way of bringing the heart back into rhythm. How is it that electrical burns are still the best-case scenario for this particular medical issue? Some people might refuse the treatment if they knew what the risks were, especially in the case of the elderly or those who are already very badly injured.

3 Aversion Therapy

We’ve been over plenty of types of aversion therapy already, but there’s one more to look at. The trauma that can be caused by this kind is often quite deep-set and worrying. You will have seen a stylized version of it in the film A Clockwork Orange, where Alex is forced to watch horrible images interspersed with sounds and images that he loves, all the while drugs are coursing through his system. Assaulting the senses with all kinds of unpleasant things, and putting in images of same gender relationships, was a key tactic for doctors trying to cure a patient of homosexuality. A patient could be forced to view all kinds of unpleasant images, which they would never normally have cause to see, just in the name of making them fear or hate the idea of being gay. This was a truly damaging treatment which should never have been attempted.

2 Tobacco Packaging

Certain countries around the world have resorted to shock tactics for one interesting subject: stopping people from smoking. If you take a look at these examples and think about them, you can see that this is actually just another version of aversion therapy. The boxes in which the cigarettes are sold are decorated with awful images of illnesses and damage that can be caused by smoking, including lung cancer and gangrene. These vivid and grotesque images can cause a lot of trauma, especially when they are shelved in a place where innocent eyes can see them. They also seem to be less effective than is preferable, since people still gleefully buy the cigarettes and smoke them. While taking extreme measures to stop people from ruining their own health is understandable, you might never expect that governments would use the same kind of tactics employed decades ago to stop gay men and women from leading their lives in the way that they wanted.

1 Shocks And Slides

When homophobia was more the norm than the exception, many people wanted to cure themselves of their sexuality. Others were forced to try to change by their families or communities. There were a number of different treatments recommended, but one common theme was aversion therapy. This works by helping you to associate something you supposedly shouldn’t like with something bad – most often, associating attractive members of the same gender with electric shocks. That’s when a handy device was invented that a patient could take home with them to continue their treatment. It was a machine that combined an electric shock with a slide projector. Whenever the slide showed an image of the same gender as the patient, it would administer an electric shock. The slides that didn’t give shocks were often images of the opposite gender, to start the patient feeling better towards them in their progress towards heterosexuality.

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