Not just a statistic

While in the UK there have been no follow-up studies of young people who have had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), in Australia there is one brief such study. Garry Walter and colleagues interviewed 26 people who had had ECT when they were aged 15-18. Three years on, 77 per cent were still receiving psychiatric treatment and 69 per cent were on welfare benefits. As the authors put it “they represent a chronically ill, functionally impaired group.” But that didn’t dampen the authors’ enthusiasm for ECT.

Just occasionally we get a glimpse of what it means to be a member of this “chronically ill, functionally impaired group” of people who had ECT when in their teens – of the tragedy behind the percentages. Susan Jane Tweedale v Dr John Tennant Herron and Ors [1997] NSWSC 168 (1 May 1997) reveals what happened to one woman in the two decades following treatment ECT in 1977 at age 15:  depression, low self-esteem, social isolation, drug addiction, low-paid jobs and unemployment, relationships with abusive men… Most people who are damaged by ECT don’t get their day in court; Susan Tweedale only received compensation because the hospital where she was treated had been the subject of a scandal and a royal commission (official inquiry) and the psychiatrists who treated her had been discredited.

Chelmsford was a small private hospital in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Between 1963 and 1979 well-known psychiatrist Harry Bailey and his colleagues treated over 1,000 patients with DST (deep sleep treatment, a form of treatment where people are sedated for days at a time with barbiturates and other drugs) and ECT. Twenty-seven people died as a result of treatment, more suffered brain damage, 24 committed suicide within a year of leaving Chelmsford. There were complaints about the hospital; they were ignored. One patient, Barry Hart, sued the hospital. It was proved that he had been treated without his consent and he won the case. But the damage he had sustained was made light of, his problems before treatment were on the contrary made much of, and the jury therefore only awarded him a modest amount in damages, which didn’t even cover his legal costs.

By the time Susan Tweedale’s case came to court things had changed. Media coverage of Chelmsford had at last forced the government to conduct an enquiry, the hospital had been condemned, Harry Bailey had committed suicide. Justice Badgery-Parker accepted that Tweedale had not been seriously ill when she was admitted to Chelmsford and that the treatment she had received there had left her with a lot of problems. He did not, however, accept that her heroin addiction was a result of her treatment at Chelmsford and her compensation for loss of earnings was accordingly reduced. Ironically, what the judge described as “her phobia against psychiatrists” meant that an award for future therapy was reduced by 20 per cent.

The judge’s conclusions about the cause of brain damage:

I am satisfied on a comfortable balance of probabilities that the plaintiff did sustain, by reason of DST and by reason of the administration of ECT, a degree of organic brain damage producing cognitive deficits in the areas of memory, concentration and learning ability. It is possible that such organic brain damage as she sustained was caused only by DST, both directly and indirectly through the mechanisms described above and that the several administrations of ECT added nothing; but upon a consideration of the whole of the evidence I think it more likely that both treatments contributed. If that is so, it is not possible to distinguish precisely their respective contributions, but clearly the probability is that DST played the larger part.

By this time, DST was prohibited in New South Wales; ECT was, and is, still widely used.

A brief newspaper article about the case can be read here.


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