Saturday, August 7, 2010

ECT--Can't the consumers get over it?

The fact is, electroshock therapy may be the most important treatment we have. Why does it divide consumers (who call themselves patients/survivors on this issue) and families so badly about its use?

Electroshock therapy (ECT) is the treatment of choice for many psychiatrists, when medicine and psychotherapy have failed, for someone suffering from severe mental depression or schizophrenia who is in the most urgent circumstances.

Its power, I believe, comes from the recognition that this is the last resort. It's the one thing that can pull you through, as nothing else can, when you're suicidal and seem possessed of demons. Parents have watched their teenage or adult child spiral downhill in a hospital bed to literally go out of their mind, refuse to eat, become thin as a rail, talk crazy, spout religious fantasies, and not know who they are.

Yet it's still as controversial as lobotomies—sticking needles into your brain. (Did you know they still do that in some circles?) ECT consistently draws a violent reaction from the more vocal members among the consumers, some of whom have personally experienced its effects and felt they were injured. Usually they claim loss of memory or thinking ability or changes in personality and while some of these things may have happened, these functions are known to return. The early radicals who underwent ECT are vocal enough to enlist their followers to continue this line of resistance, however.

Nobody likes to mess with the brain physically, only doctors who are trained in electroshock procedure and its anesthesia, and they want to say it's safe. The rest of us can only imagine what it's like to have clamps slapped on the sides of your head and then be hit with a powerful surge of voltage that shakes the head violently. That's too close to the imagery for violence in an electric chair, and none of us wants to entertain those notions.

These consumer groups repeat the dangers of injury from ECT as if they are legion but rather in modern treatment we find they are very rare, if they exist at all. In the old days procedures were not the same as today, and those administering the shocks wouldn't have been as properly trained nor would the equipment be as safe. But that isn't the case anymore and the evidence is overwhelming that the procedures are safe and effective.

ECT--electro-convulsive therapy--has a checkered past, as most people know, lumped in with lobotomies and other pre-modern medical strikes to try to cure the thinking of madmen and madwomen. In its modern form it's nothing like the early versions that did indeed have victims and created the myths about it that have raised the ire of legions of consumers and their allies.

But this is one of the most useful therapies known in psychiatry, fully established and blessed by the medical establishment—the doctors' guilds (APA and AMA, etc). It's seen as safe and dependable, practiced in numerous hospitals by numerous physicians armed with the latest knowledge and technology about its use. Never mind that they still don't know exactly how it works.

It gives the brain a shock, much like forcing a convulsion, which hardly seems like painless therapy. There is a sudden excitation of brain waves and aftershocks, like the succession of tremors that hit Haiti after the quake. The shocks are administered in a series of up to eight or 10 over two weeks or so, but spaced out, not right on top of one another.

The person being tested is often someone with severe symptoms of depression or schizophrenia for whom medicine has failed. Others take ECT on a maintenance basis; they periodically relapse, receive ECT, and almost miraculously perk up—the evidence supports this.

Despite the evidence, consumers can't get over it. Last September a coalition of patients/survivors in Brooklyn launched a nationwide call to action against forced mental health treatment including drugging and electroshock therapy. They tie these to outworn forms of the medical model of psychiatry, which they find coercive. And anything coercive is too much for them. They demand the right to reject what is imposed on them by doctors and to make their own choices. But isn't this foolish if someone is so sick they are out of their mind, suicidal, unable to appreciate what they doing or saying?

Finally, it appears the leader of the statewide mental health consumer movement in NY, Harvey Rosenthal of NYAPRS, has taken a softer stance. In the love and hate war of words over electroshock therapy, Harvey wrote to the US Food and Drug Administration last January that the consumer movement doesn't oppose ECT any more, after decades of disagreement over this issue. They just want regular inspection of the equipment used and a ban on its use for children and the elderly.

Hear, hear! No blanket condemnation! Don't tell me they have come to their senses. But is the old guard still spouting the same old tales of woe over their treatment at the hands of doctors who ordered ECT. Maybe the organization is marching to a different drummer on this one, thank goodness. (Roy Neville)


  1. ECT is a horrible thing.....i am a victim of it's devastating effects. I did it 3 years ago, only 5 treatments, and my brain still feels totally screwed up. There should be tougher guidelines and standards around those who should recieve ECT and those who shouldn't. Also, the doctor who administered ECT on me never told me about all the cases of people who had horrific experiences with it. That is unreal and that doctor should not be practicing medicine. It's completely unbelievable! Truly insane.

  2. I know one person who is very pleased with its results forsevere depression with psychotic features, but have also known severl people who were still in really bad shape afterward and insisted, convincingly in view of what I observed, that it had harmed them.

    Here's the problem. Someone I know well and love has lived with mental illness including DID, PTSD, suicidal depression, etc.but after her first personality integration hallucinations, auditory ad visual, have added to the brew, and doctor and I can't talk her out of them. Long since used up Medicare, Medicaid mental hospital days, so floats in and out of psych units at general hospitals too fast to accomplish more than momentary stabilization. Getting worse. What do we do now? Situation has reached desperate point.