While the thought of electroshock therapy brings to mind gritty images of torture from a distant past, the therapy is still being used today. Despite real side effects, the treatment is viewed as a life-safer by some.
An article in Maclean’s magazine, recounts the tale of a mother whose autistic child became so out of hand, he nearly killed her. American writer Ann Bauer brought her son to the Mayo Clinic, were he received electroshock therapy – also known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – and she was amazed with the results.
“Eighteen hours after his first session, he was up and about, greeting his parents and playing cards. He would relapse and need further sessions, as well as drug therapy, but he had come "back to life," in Bauer's words,” writes the article.
The Mayo Clinic believes the treatment is “safe and effective” in treating severe and prolonged depression. It specified that patients are anesthetized when an electrical current passes through the patient's brain to artificially induce a seizure.
“ECT is given as a series of treatments, usually six to 10, and can be remarkably effective in treating depression that does not respond to medications,” states the clinic’s website.
Critics of shock therapy argue that it leads to permanent memory loss – while those who support it believe these effects on memory are temporary and reversible.
Bilateral ECT (which works on both sides of the brain at the same time) is linked to more cognitive impairment compared to unilateral ECT applied to the non-dominant hemisphere of the brain, explains the World Psychiatric Association (WPA).
The WPA released a position statement (Word document) in January 2006, where it stated:
“ECT should only be considered after a comprehensive assessment and careful diagnosis of the illness with the assessment of the balance of potential benefits and risks including: risks of anaesthesia, physical condition, anticipated adverse events, particularly cognitive impairment; and the risk of not having treatment.
ECT should only be administered after informed consent is obtained from patients with capacity.”
Testimonies of people who have undergone ECT vary, with some grateful for the experience and others who feel they were scarred by the treatment.
“I have had numerous ECT treatments. I had bilateral treatments in 1995-96 that did nothing except destroy my memory, says Melissa, cited in About.com’s bipolar disorder page.
However, in the past two years, I have had several courses of ECT to treat psychotic, suicidal depression and believe me, ECT was the only thing that helped at all. My psychiatrist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis recommended that I do maintenance treatments, which I did for about 3-4 months.
Three months after my last maintenance treatment, my moods are stable and I am a successful graduate student. I have told my psychiatrist that he saved my life with the ECT. I hate to admit it because I find the treatments abhorrent, but I truly believe that this awful treatment has saved my life more than once.“After numerous hospital visits over a two-year period, ECT treatments were presented as my last chance at controlling depression. Medications were unable to control the illness. Yes, there were annoying and upsetting memory problems immediately afterward, not remembering if I had children or had a job. Those unpleasant and upsetting side-effects cleared by the end of the day, confides Diane.
I am assured that other memory lapses I have experienced are a result of the depression itself, and not the ECT treatments. In retrospect, the ECT treatments allowed the depression to improve significantly to be treatable by medications alone.”
Statistics on electroconvulsive treatment are scarce and barely compiled. In the US, “only a handful of states require reporting and many other countries either do not collect data at all, or do so partially,” indicates ECT.com, a website compiling information and data on the treatment.
“The most commonly cited figure in the US is 100,000 patients receiving ECT annually. This number originates from a 1995 study that makes the estimate based on samples from psychiatric hospitals throughout the country, surveys by psychiatrists and other methods,” adds the site.
ECT.com also mentions that critics of the industry point out that in North America, the use of electroshock is rising as insurance and government health plans pay for the treatment.