Jana Vanecek

History of Electroconvulsive Therapy: Power, Misuse, and the Subjugation of the Mind

22.03.2023 | Research Blog Genoa | ChatGPT (GPT4): history of electroconvulsive therapy, what the technology was actually intended for and how it was misused + Foucaults Analysis of Power


In the realm of mental health, the history of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) stands as a stark reminder of the dialectic between knowledge and power. As a technology initially intended to relieve the suffering of those afflicted with severe mental illnesses, its journey has been marked by misuse and the subjugation of vulnerable populations. This essay seeks to explore the history of ECT, its original aims, and its misappropriation, through the lens of Michel Foucault's theories on the relationship between power and knowledge.

The Birth of ECT: Intentions and Early Applications

The birth of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can be traced back to the 1930s, when the Italian neuropsychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini first developed the technique as a treatment for psychiatric disorders. The development of ECT was based on the observation that seizures could have therapeutic effects on mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia and depression.

The initial intentions behind ECT were to find an effective and relatively safe method of inducing seizures for therapeutic purposes. Before ECT, other methods were used to induce seizures, such as insulin coma therapy and the administration of convulsive-inducing drugs like Metrazol. However, these methods had significant side effects and risks, which prompted the search for an alternative.

Cerletti and Bini discovered that the application of electrical currents to the brain could produce seizures without the need for drugs or other invasive methods. They conducted their first human trial of ECT on April 11, 1938. The patient, a man suffering from schizophrenia, showed significant improvement after the treatment, and thus, ECT was born.

In the early years, ECT was primarily used to treat schizophrenia. The rationale behind this was the belief that inducing seizures could "reset" the brain and alleviate symptoms of mental illness. However, the efficacy of ECT in treating schizophrenia was later found to be limited, and its use shifted more toward the treatment of severe depression and bipolar disorder.

ECT gained widespread acceptance in the 1940s and 1950s as a treatment for various psychiatric disorders, particularly severe depression, mania, and catatonia. However, the lack of standardization in the procedure and the administration of ECT without anesthesia or muscle relaxants led to many patients experiencing significant side effects, such as memory loss, confusion, and even bone fractures.

The negative portrayal of ECT in popular culture, such as in the 1975 film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," contributed to the decline of its use in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, ECT has undergone significant refinements and improvements, including the use of anesthesia, muscle relaxants, and more precise electrode placement. As a result, ECT is now considered a safe and effective treatment for severe depression and other psychiatric disorders that do not respond to conventional therapies.

The Misuse of ECT: Power Dynamics and the Subjugation of the Mind

However, as Foucault reminds us, the development and application of new technologies are invariably shaped by broader social forces, and ECT was no exception. The treatment soon became inextricably entwined with the power dynamics that pervaded the psychiatric institutions of the day. As such, ECT came to be used not only as a means of alleviating the suffering of patients, but also as a tool for reinforcing the authority of psychiatrists and the institutions they served.

The misuse of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is a significant issue in the history of mental health treatment. ECT is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from severe mental illnesses, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. When used appropriately and with informed consent, ECT can be a valuable treatment option for some patients. However, there have been instances of its misuse, which can be tied to power dynamics and the subjugation of the mind. This analysis will focus on three main aspects: the historical context, power dynamics, and ethical considerations.

1. Historical context: The development of ECT dates back to the 1930s. During its early years, the treatment was often administered without anesthesia or muscle relaxants, which led to patients experiencing significant pain and distress. Additionally, ECT was sometimes used to "treat" homosexuality, as well as to manage unruly patients in psychiatric institutions. These practices led to a lasting negative perception of ECT and contributed to the potential for its misuse.

2. Power dynamics: The misuse of ECT can be attributed, in part, to the power dynamics that exist within the patient-doctor relationship. Some practitioners may wield their authority inappropriately, coercing patients into undergoing ECT without fully understanding the potential risks and benefits. In some cases, this may have resulted from a paternalistic approach to medicine, where doctors believe they know what is best for their patients, regardless of the patients' preferences or concerns. The power imbalance can also manifest in forced ECT treatment, particularly in institutional settings where patients may have limited autonomy and fewer legal protections.

3. Ethical considerations: The misuse of ECT raises a number of ethical concerns. The most pressing issue is the infringement upon a patient's autonomy and right to make informed decisions about their own healthcare. Informed consent is a crucial aspect of ethical medical practice, and any coercion or misrepresentation of information undermines this process. Additionally, there are concerns about potential long-term side effects of ECT, including memory loss and cognitive impairment. When ECT is misused, the potential for harm is heightened, and patients may suffer lasting consequences as a result.

In conclusion, the misuse of ECT is a complex issue rooted in historical practices, power dynamics, and ethical considerations. Although ECT can be a valuable treatment for some patients, it is crucial to prioritize informed consent, patient autonomy, and the responsible administration of the therapy. By addressing the power dynamics that contribute to the potential for misuse, the mental health field can work to ensure that patients are protected and receive the most appropriate care for their individual needs.

The Legacy of ECT: Reckoning with the Past, Reimagining the Future

Today, ECT has undergone a significant transformation. Strict guidelines govern its use, and informed consent is now an essential prerequisite for treatment. Nevertheless, the legacy of its past misuse continues to haunt the psychiatric community, serving as a poignant reminder of the dangers of unbridled power and the potential for knowledge to be corrupted in the service of oppression.

In reevaluating the history of ECT, we must engage with Foucault's ideas about the relationship between power, knowledge, and the self. This will enable us to better understand the historical and cultural forces that shaped the development and application of this controversial treatment. By reckoning with the past, we can work to ensure that the lessons learned from the misuse of ECT inform our approach to mental health care in the future.

As we move forward, it is essential that we remain vigilant against the potential for power dynamics to corrupt the therapeutic relationship. This involves not only the ongoing refinement of guidelines and ethical standards but also fostering a culture of transparency and accountability within psychiatric institutions. Empowering patients with information about their rights and the potential risks and benefits of various treatments is a crucial step toward mitigating the potential for exploitation and abuse.

Furthermore, we must recognize the importance of adopting a more holistic and humanistic approach to mental health care, one that takes into account the complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors that shape our experiences of mental illness. By moving beyond a narrow focus on the medicalization of mental health, we can create a more compassionate and inclusive system that honors the dignity and autonomy of those who seek help.


In conclusion, the history of electroconvulsive therapy offers a powerful case study of the ways in which power and knowledge can become intertwined, with profound implications for the treatment of mental illness. By examining the origins, intentions, and misuse of ECT through the lens of Foucault's theories, we can gain valuable insights into the complex dynamics that underlie the practice of psychiatry. As we continue to confront the legacy of ECT and work to build a more equitable and compassionate mental health care system, it is essential that we remain vigilant against the potential for power to corrupt and knowledge to oppress. Only by engaging in this ongoing process of critical reflection can we hope to create a future where the promise of mental health care is truly realized for all.