Saturday, 26.09.2020

Francois Ferrero: Inquiry of the Geneva 1980s’ Psychiatry Crisis:
Forced Hospitalization, ECT and Sleep Therapy

Hanfried Helmchen’s comment

            Thank you for asking me to comment on the report by Prof. Ferrero. I think that it is an example of the widespread upheaval in European psychiatry in the 1970s and 1980s as other examples show, such as “the May 1968 events” in Paris (Moussaoui 2003, 2014)or the development and consequences of “law 180” in Italy. This law, initiated by the psychiatrist Franco Basaglia and known aslegge Basaglia,was passed by the Italian parliament on May 13, 1978, and started the reform of psychiatry in Italy by closing all lunatic asylums. Initially, itcreatedsevere problems for patients and their relatives due to the lack of support for the care of the dismissed mentally ill.

            I cannot comment specifically on Professor Ferrero’s report because I have no specific knowledge of the events and their background in Geneva. However, Professor Norman Sartorius will have such an in-depth-knowledge. But I can send you, if interested,a similar report with my own experiences of the corresponding events in Berlin.

            There are, of course, more memories of this time, e.g., on ECT, one of the targets of antipsychiatric critics. The director of the large psychiatric hospital “Karl-Bonhoeffer-Klinik”in Berlinonce called me in order to transfer one of his long-term patients for ECT (because he and a lot of other psychiatrists had become anxious to perform ECT under the pressure of antipsychiatric groups). I rejected by arguing that he as a psychiatric specialist should perform this standard therapy by himself. A short time later on I heard in a radio broadcast the same director denouncing my hospital as the “shocker-clinic.”

            In the middle of the 1990s the “red-green” government of Berlin tried to implement a legal prohibition of ECT. I protested against this illegal intrusion into the physician’s freedom to treat (Kurierfreiheit) according to established standards. Nevertheless, following this ideological intention the physician’s parliament of the physician’s board (Delegierten-Versammlungder Ärztekammer) decided that ECT couldbe performed only after ethical consulting by the physician’s board. Again, I protested, and after a few weeks the president of the physician’s board invited the heads of all psychiatric hospitals for consultation on the indication and application of ECT. After anunequivocal vote of the leading psychiatrists that ECT is an established standard therapy, he assured the conference to vote again in the physician’s parliament in order to reverse the former decision. One astonished colleague remarked that the president cannot preempt a vote of the parliament. However, the next session of the parliament reversed its decision!

            Your invitation to comment on Professor Ferrero’s report stimulated my memories although some of them have lost their precision and some others are presumably forgotten.


Moussaoui D. A biography of Jean Delay. Biographies. February 27, 2014, p 22f.: “The May 1968 events.”

.Moussaoui D.  A biography of Jean Delay: First President of the World Psychiatric Association. Amsterdam: Elsevier; 2003. (P. 22 “The May 1968 events”).



July 26, 2018