Is Shock Therapy Treatment or Torture?

The co-director of the child and adolescent psychiatric unit at Harbor UCLA, Dr. Patrick Kelly and the director of medical services at the Judge Rotenberg Center, Dr. Nathan Blenkush, on split screen.
The co-director of the child and adolescent psychiatric unit at Harbor UCLA, Dr. Patrick Kelly and the director of medical services at the Judge Rotenberg Center, Dr. Nathan Blenkush, on split screen.

The Judge Rotenberg Center is a school and residential facility that uses Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) as a treatment for certain students with developmental and psychiatric disorders. Massachusetts state officials have been trying to ban this practice since 2013 but a judge recently ruled this shock treatment for some students with special needs acceptable. 

The Doctors are joined by the director of medical services at the Judge Rotenberg Center, Dr. Nathan Blenkush, who wants to further explain the practice and its benefits. He explains it is part of a comprehensive behavioral program and calls it “effective and life-changing.” Specific behaviors are targeted with the GED and if the student emits one of those, a staff member will activate the device, which delivers a two-second skin shock to the surface of the skin. To hear his full explanation, watch the video above. 

The Doctors also have the co-director of the child and adolescent psychiatric unit at Harbor UCLA, Dr. Patrick Kelly, who believes GED should not be used. “The shock itself is delivered through the skin… Anybody who has had a charley horse, imagine that times one hundred. This is essentially an organized form of corporal punishment,” says Dr. Kelly. Dr. Kelly’s argument on why he believes this is torture is in the video above, as well Dr. Blenkush’s response on why other treatments just aren’t enough. Dermatologist Dr. Sonia Batra also brings up a case against the Judge Rotenberg Center from 2012 where a student was videotaped strapped down to a board in restraints and shocked for many times over seven hours. 

Dr. Blenkush says there are over 100 peer review articles that describe the efficacy of this procedure. He offers to share with Dr. Kelly these articles along with the case histories and the parental reports about what the treatment meant for them and their families. ER physician Dr. Travis Stork asks Dr. Kelly, “If you’ve tried absolutely everything else, and this were done completely transparently with the blessing of the parents, and this was a self-harming activity for instance, is there some wiggle room?” 

Dr. Kelly says “not really.” Dr. Kelly describes a positive reinforcement therapy called blocking, which he believes is one better way to treat these patients. Dr. Blenkush points out they use these same treatments and often people who have been in other institutions who have tried those treatments will end up at the Judge Rotenberg Center after. While Dr. Blenkush thinks a two-second shot is better than heavy doses of antipsychotics, Dr. Kelly rebuttals that the shocks are not one-time, but rather they could be happening for years. Dr. Blenkush agrees but says most of the shocks typically occur in the initial learning phase, which he says usually happens quickly. 


The two doctors discuss informed consent. Dr. Kelly brings up the point that the standard of care for medical treatments is informed consent so if there are patients who have verbal abilities and say they don’t want the treatment, are they able to refuse it? Dr. Blenkush explains that is taken into consideration but there are other players involved. Find out how this process works in the video below. 

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