CITIZENS COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Raising Awareness of Human Rights Within The Field of Mental Health
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APARTHEID AND ELECTROCONVULSIVE THERAPY

The excruciating pain that would be felt from electroshock without anesthetic was not an issue to some South African psychiatrists. "It's simply too expensive, too slow and too risky... because we treat more Africans than Whites, we would have to double our staff if we used anesthetics." Dr. P. Henning - Chief State Psychiatrist, South Africa - on why blacks receiving ECT were not anesthetized.

Apartheid Electro Convulsive Therapy AbuseMany of apartheid's concepts were spawned from the German nationalist psychiatric philosophy that "life devoid of value" or "inferior stock" justified the mass oppression and killing of individuals. In South Africa, psychiatrists, psychologists and other eugenicists callously categorized blacks in this fashion, offering the government a "scientific" means by which to deny them employment. The primary architect of apartheid was Hendrick Verwoerd, a psychologist who had furthered his studies in German universities at a time when these institutions were energetically forwarding psychiatric genetics (race betterment). He later became Prime Minister of South Africa.

Eugenicists argued that the "brain capacity of natives" was far less than Europeans. In 1934, H.L. Gordon claimed that there was a ranking order for brain capacity as follows: 1) European, 2) educated native, 3) psychotic native, 4) normal native, 5) criminal native and 6) idiot native. Dr. Dunston, a psychiatrist and South Africa's first Commissioner of Mental Hygiene, suggested that blacks "even of the best tribes, possibly belong to a race which is mentally inferior to ours..."

Based on this fraudulent premise, tens of thousands of black South Africans were incarcerated in "special" psychiatric institutions and treated so atrociously that media, decades later dubbed it "mental genocide." The callous disregard psychiatrists have for blacks is displayed in a 1971 study published in the South African Medical Journal in which the author reported that 100 South Sotho males had been given electroshock without anesthetic on eight consecutive days. Only a tranquilizer was used to block out the searing pain from the shock. The treating psychiatrists would have known that medical literature throughout the 1960s had detailed how shock given in this way could fracture the spine and even kill.

In 1976, CCHR exposed how blacks held in private psychiatric institutions and used for slave labour were being given shock without anesthetic. The chief state psychiatrist, Dr. P. Henning, felt this was appropriate because "It's simply too expensive, too slow and too risky. Africans appear to be more susceptible to the effects of anesthetics and because we treat more Africans than Whites, we would have to double our staff if we used anesthetics."

The excruciating pain that would be felt from this application of electricity was not an issue, reminiscent of Benjamin Rush, the "father" of American psychiatry, who in 1797 theorized that blacks - being descendants of lepers - had a morbid insensitivity to pain and, compared to whites, were able to endure surgical operations with ease. Rush recalled cases where blacks had actually held their upper part of a limb during amputation without anesthetic.

Psychiatrists railed against public exposure of their electroshock methods. The apartheid government, bowing to their demands, passed a law prohibiting the reporting on or photographing of conditions in any psychiatric facilities in South Africa. Those who violated this law were fined or jailed for up to one year.

When apartheid ended in 1994, the new Health Ministry ordered a full inquiry into malpractice and racism in psychiatric hospitals. The inquiry's report, released in February 1996, found that because the above law had prevented public scrutiny of psychiatric facilities, "culprits have committed gross abuses of patients with impunity." This included frequent use of ECT.

In some hospitals, "death certificates [were] falsified to camouflage the real cause of death." The general treatment of patients, including commitment, isolation and drugging violated their "right not to be subjected to cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment."
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