When I posted The ECT Procedure: How It’s Done on Twitter, someone replied that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or, electroshock treatment “is craniocerbral [sic] trauma” and that it “causes brain damage.” The person referred me to the site, ECT Resources Center, to confirm this.
I was surprised to receive such a response, because I thought that ECT is a largely accepted treatment for depression, because it works and is considered safe. There are memoirs out there, particularly Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic, that describe positive experiences with the treatment. In Fisher’s book, she treats ECT as just another form of therapy. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it; rather, she normalizes the treatment.
At the point in my life when I read the reply, I had undergone ECT many times. All told, I’ve had approximately 50 or so treatments — maybe more — I’d have to ask for my medical records for the exact number.
Then I visited that website, run by psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin, MD,, and was surprised at what I found: he claims that ECT
“always damages the brain, resulting each time in a temporary coma and often a flatlining of the brain waves, which is a sign of impending brain death. After one, two or three ECTs, the trauma causes typical symptoms of severe head trauma or injury including headache, nausea, memory loss, disorientation, confusion, impaired judgment, loss of personality, and emotional instability. These harmful effects worsen and some become permanent as routine treatment progresses.”
What?! Except for memory loss, I’ve never experienced any of those things. Did I show impaired judgment by taking a selfie after a treatment? Do I look disoriented? You tell me lol! I didn’t bother exploring the site because I thought it was ridiculous, but I did more research about the stigma towards ECT. I found this article, “Electroconvulsive therapy: A history of controversy but also of help,” written by medical history professor Jonathan Sadowsky, on The Conversation. Sadowsky states that:
“Many critics have portrayed ECT as a form of medical abuse, and depictions in film and television are usually scary. Yet many psychiatrists, and more importantly, patients, consider it to be a safe and effective treatment [emphasis added] for severe depression and bipolar disorder.”
He goes on to say that most people are “exposed only to the frightening images of ECT.” For example:
“Many depictions of ECT in film and television have portrayed the therapy as an abusive form of control. Most famous is the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” [based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name] in which an unruly patient is subjected to the procedure as a punishment. There is probably no fictional story that so haunts our consciousness of a medical treatment.”
These negative portrayals, I’m sure, fuel the stigma towards ECT, as well as the anti-psychiatry movement that Sadowsky describes. I never even knew there was such a movement. The extreme members don’t believe that mental illness exists! (It’s worth reading the article.)
Though mental hospital staff in the past may have threatened to administer ECT to patients they couldn’t control, in my experiences of being in psych wards, I’ve never seen that happen. And in order to perform ECT nowadays, the patient has to sign a consent form. No one can just wrestle you onto a gurney, and give you ECT.
Also, when my psychiatrist recently recommended ECT, he reminded me numerous times that it’s my decision. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I don’t feel pressured to do it. And he can’t just write an order for me to undergo the treatment.
As for the supposed results of ECT after only 3 treatments listed in the first quote (Breggin’s), I have experienced long- and short-term memory loss. Both are common side effects. Long-term memory loss, I admit, is the trade-off for feeling like yourself again. Since I started blogging daily, my short-term memory loss has improved: words in my vocabulary that I have trouble recalling, I’m now able to conjure up without struggling.
Like I said, I’ve had about 50 treatments, and have I lost my personality? Hardly. I hope this comes through in my posts! As for the other results the quote describes, I haven’t experienced any of them, at least not because of ECT. For example, I get nauseous when my anxiety flares up, not because I’ve had ECT.
It’s too bad that there are people out there using scare tactics to dissuade patients who could benefit from the treatment, from getting help. ECT has helped me.
What are your thoughts on ECT?