ECT Is Murder: The Historical and Political Roots of ECT and its Hold on Public Imagination By Sonia Soans

Electro Convulsive Therapy is one of those psychiatric treatments that has a strong hold on public imagination. One Flew over a Cuckoos Nest is iconic in its use of ECT as a treatment. The image of a patient being tied by and given electric shocks is hard to shake, brutality and force are ideas associated with this treatment. Inextricably tied to the profession of psychiatry it is born out of experiments with electricity and in abattoirs.

The image of the ‘mad person’ being subdued is powerful, it signals punishment for deviance. It plays on our fear of physical retribution. It is present in films, we have all seen a film where an agitated person was brought in kicking and screaming and given electric shocks only to be subdued.


Often thought of as barbaric it is assumed to be a thing of the past with the advent of gentler methods. This is an idea that is present not just in the general public but also amongst medical professionals.


If the procedure of ECT looks grim it is because its origins are grim. First introduced in 1938 by Italian neuropsychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini. A chance observation of watching a pig being given an electric shock before being slaughtered led Cerletti to develop the method we now know as ECT. However the use of electric shock in treating mental disorders is not new. Experiments with electricity.

Personally I see animal cruelty and human cruelty as inextricably tied together often justified for the same reasons. The normalising of ECT as a medical procedure is no different from an abattoir where killing an animal painlessly is also normalised. Psychiatric patients are thought of as animals waiting like lambs to the slaughter, voiceless and made passive.

That this treatment is medically and morally wrong is no surprise. However there are those who would argue its use on the grounds that it minimises psychological distress. Others argue on the basis of choice. ‘Choice’ is a deceptive term, given the freedom an individual has in the psychiatric system, the options are limited.

While being tied to animal cruelty ECT is also gendered. Women are more likely to be given this treatment. The connection between madness, women and the taming of wild instincts should not be lost on readers.



Endler, N. S. (1988). The origins of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The Journal of ECT, 4(1), 5-23.


Twitter handle: @PSYfem

Facebook: Sonia David Soans