40 Years After Deep Sleep Treatment Ban: Urgent Call for Global End to Electroshock

40 Years After Deep Sleep Ban: Urgent Call for Global End to Electroshock
The fact that any electroshock is still used in the psychiatric industry is a human rights offense. Laws need to be enacted globally that not only ban its use as a mental health ‘treatment’ but also make it a criminal offense to subject any patient to its barbarity. – Jan Eastgate, President CCHR International

CCHR commemorates 40 years since banning lethal “Deep Sleep Treatment” which utilized electroshock, emphasizing the imperative need for a global ban on electroshock.

By Jan Eastgate
President CCHR International

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Australia’s ban on a lethal psychiatric practice called “Deep Sleep Treatment,” which involved patients put into a psychopharmaceutical-induced “sleep” for several weeks during which electroshock was given. The practice resulted in 24 patient deaths and also led to 24 suicides. Spearheaded by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), the campaign to ban Deep Sleep Treatment successfully made its administration a criminal offense under the New South Wales Mental Health Act. Such patient protections are crucial, and they underscore the need to address similar dangerous and coercive practices occurring in the mental health industry today. The United Nations Committee against Torture deemed the coercive use of electroshock as torture, yet it continues to be administered involuntarily in the U.S. and abroad.

Despite the fact that the now disgraced Deep Sleep Treatment was banned 40 years ago, it remains in the news today. Dr. John Gill, former medical superintendent and co-owner of Chelmsford hospital instigated civil litigation which focuses on the publication of a 2016 book that included a chapter on Deep Sleep Treatment, highlighting serious allegations raised during a New South Wales government inquiry into the treatment that spanned two years from 1988-1990. Dr. Gill objected to the allegations raised during the inquiry and again when repeated in the book. The case settled out of court on July 3, 2023.

In the 1960s, Dr. Harry Bailey, the chief psychiatrist at Chelmsford hospital developed a form of Deep Sleep Treatment after studying it during a World Health Organization-funded tour in the 1950s. He was influenced by its use in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. “I visited all centers in the USA where deep sedation techniques were in use,” Bailey wrote. “This included a long period at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, where I worked with Carl Sem-Jacobsen on intra-cerebral electrode recording during sedation.” He traveled to California, Chicago, Hawaii, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

CCHR exposed Deep Sleep Treatment in a series of articles and in complaints filed with health and law enforcement authorities in New South Wales and obtained several coroner inquests into patient deaths—all of which led to a ban on Deep Sleep Treatment in 1983.

60 Minutes in Australia and Channel 4 TV in the UK both did exposés of Deep Sleep Treatment in 1980 and 1992 respectively. 60 Minutes won an Australian Logie television award for its story, similar to an Emmy in the U.S. Channel 4’s documentary reported a damning comment attributed to Dr. Gill regarding the 24 suicides linked to Deep Sleep Treatment and ECT, reporting that Gill said the deaths from suicide were “outstanding psychiatric results.”[1] 

Today, psychiatrists defend the use of ECT as a deterrent to suicide, knowing this is as much an outrageous lie as suicide following Deep Sleep Treatment being an “outstanding result.” A February 2023 study published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica found that after receiving electroshock, patients were 44 times more likely to die by suicide than people in the general population.[2]

Dr. Ian Gardiner, a now deceased Chelmsford hospital psychiatrist, admitted to Channel 4 that patients, while in a drug-induced Deep Sleep Treatment coma, did not receive an anesthetic before being given ECT and, as such, some were awake during the force of its administration.[3]

A former Australian actor, Barry Hart was one such patient. He described the horrifying experience to 60 Minutes: “And all my head inside was exploding with white light as if it was blowing off its shoulders.”[4] Another patient, Stevie Wright, an Australian 1960s rock-n-roll icon as the lead singer of the band, The Easybeats, recalled: “There was a frightening pain which went through my temples.”[5] Gwen Whitty, a 28-year-old mother, described: “My entire body could not stop its movements and body spasms. I just never-endingly threw myself all over the bed until I finally fell very heavily to the floor. I can still remember the intense pain to my shoulders, arms, and top part of my body. My husband heard gurgling sounds coming from behind a screen. Upon investigation he found, to his horror, me after having had electroshock treatment, blood trickling from my nose and mouth.”[6]

In 1990, Judge John Slattery, who headed the government inquiry into Deep Sleep Treatment determined that ECT without a patient’s consent, or after obtaining consent by use of fraud and deceit, commits “a trespass to the person” and is “responsible for an assault on them.”[7] And so it remains today, with involuntary commitment laws throughout the U.S., Australia, UK, and elsewhere allowing for ECT to be given against a person’s wishes.

Twenty-three years after Judge Slattery’s comments, the United Nations Committee against Torture issued a report in 2013 warning that electroshock administered forcibly or without a patient’s consent, constitutes torture and is a practice that needs to be outlawed.[8] That was reinforced by the W.H.O. guideline on mental health in 2021 which said coercive psychiatric practices are often mandated in laws and should be prohibited.[9]

Today, patients are still misled about how ECT causes brain damage, memory loss, and death, constituting consumer fraud and assault.[10] It took a 2018 civil lawsuit for one ECT device manufacturer to warn that electroshock can cause brain damage.

In 1980, Anthony McClellan, the producer of a 60 Minutes show, “The Chelmsford Scream” was hard-pressed to find Australian psychiatrists who would speak out against Deep Sleep Treatment. CCHR connected him up with its co-founder, Thomas Szasz, professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, who was highly critical of psychiatry’s use of Deep Sleep Treatment.

Szasz described the 60 Minutes story on Deep Sleep Treatment as “a kind of atrocity which is so awful that there is no point trying to outdo oneself by reaching for some awful adjective to describe it. But what is interesting is that this kind of awfulness was shown on television, and even before it was shown on television, this kind of treatment was occurring. Where were the pillars of society? Why were they silent?”[11] It took CCHR five years of battling psychiatric opposition and bureaucratic incompetence to get Deep Sleep Treatment banned.

Szasz later told reporters from The Sydney Morning Herald: “I would say that Bailey did what he did because he was an evil, sadistic killer. The fact that he was intelligent and had impressive medical credentials has no bearing on his being evil—Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, were also no dummies. On the contrary, all that, plus the psychiatric Zeitgeist [defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history], made it easier for him to disguise his brutalities as medical treatment.”[12]

Such brutality was recently discussed by Spanish filmmaker and investigative reporter, Gabriel Carrion Lopez, in The European Times. He pointed out the parallels between shock therapy in psychiatric facilities and its use as a means of torture carried out by central intelligence or terrorist movements around the world, as well as the electric chair once used in the U.S. for executions. He wrote: “The use of electricity as a form of death or torture to obtain information is basically already classified as a human rights offense….”[13]

The fact that any electroshock is still used in the psychiatric industry is a human rights offense. Laws need to be enacted globally that not only ban its use as a mental health “treatment” but also make it a criminal offense to subject any patient to its barbarity.

Watch the Channel 4 exposé here:

[1] https://youtu.be/dlRYlrUyGs0, timecode 48:54; https://www.s4me.info/threads/deep-sleep-therapy-abc-channel-4-1990s-documentary-on-a-psychiatric-treatment-that-directly-and-indirectly-was-associated-with-a-number-of-deaths.16382/

[2] https://www.cchrint.org/2023/02/28/electroshock-patients-44-times-more-likely-to-commit-suicide/, citing Peter Simons, “ECT Does Not Seem to Prevent Suicide,” Mad In America, 17 Feb. 2023, https://www.madinamerica.com/2023/02/ect-does-not-seem-to-prevent-suicide/

[3] https://youtu.be/dlRYlrUyGs0, timecode 48:25

[4] John Little, “Inside 60 Minutes: The Story Behind The Stories,” Allen & Unwin 1994, ISBN 1-86373-721-9, https://suburbia.net/~fun/scn/books/inside-60-minutes.html

[5] Stevie Wright statement to CCHR Sydney, 1982

[6] John O’Neill and Robert Haupt, “Psychiatry Gone Mad: ‘We Want Justice,’” The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1988

[7] The Hon. Mr. Acting Justice, J.P. Slattery, A.O., “Report of the Royal Commission Into Deep Sleep Therapy,” New South Wales Royal Commission, Vol. 6, Dec. 1990, p. 96

[8] https://www.cchrint.org/electroshock/; A/HRC/22/53, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez,” United Nations, General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Twenty-second Session, Agenda Item 3, 1 Feb. 2013, p. 21, para 85, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A.HRC.22.53_English.pdf

[9] https://www.cchrint.org/2021/06/11/world-health-organization-new-guidelines-are-vital-to-end-coercive-psychiatric-practices-abuse/, citing, “Guidance on Community Mental Health Services: Promoting Person-Centered and Rights-Based Approaches,” World Health Organization, 10 June 2021, pp 4 & 6, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240025707

[10] https://www.cchrint.org/2023/06/23/consumers-unaware-that-brain-damaging-electroshock-devices-are-not-fda-approved/

[11] CCHR submission to the Royal Commission into Deep Sleep Therapy, 1989; “The Chelmsford Report,” CCHR, 1986

[12] “Harry Bailey: a sadist dressed up as a doctor, or just insane? Psychiatry Gone Mad,” The Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 1988

[13] Gabriel Carrion Lopez, “The electric chair, psychiatric electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and the death penalty,” European Times, 18 June 2023, https://www.europeantimes.news/2023/06/the-electric-chair-psychiatric-electroconvulsive-therapy-ect-and-the-death-penalty/