Stigma Towards ECT

Me, post-ECT, November 2014; photo provided by author

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?

via Daily Prompt: Conjure

25 thoughts on “Stigma Towards ECT

  1. It is frightening and just plain dangerous that there are people like that spreading misinformation about ECT. He says that “ECT destroys the ability to protest, all ECT quickly becomes involuntary and thus inherently abusive and a human rights violation.” An then there’s these gems: “In place of ECT, depressed and severely disturbed people need good individual, couples, or family therapy. Since psychiatric drugs commonly cause or worsen depression, anxiety and psychosis, always consider stopping all psychiatric drugs through a carefully supervised withdrawal.” Excuse me? This guy should have his medical license taken away. I’ve had somewhere between 35 and 40 ECT treatments, and like you I had memory loss, but certainly nothing like this nutbar describes. It makes me angry that people like this are contributing to the stigma around a very effective form of treatment.

    1. Exactly. As you know, it’s been an accepted form of treatment for a very long time It sucks that there are people out there who spread such misinformation. And I’ll bet most of them have never even had ECT.

  2. I have no experience with it myself but I get more curious to the benefits of it each time you post about it. It has never been mentioned as a treatment for me and I think this is partly because I am in a remission of sorts but if were ever an option, I would refer to your experience and also a little of research on my own, before deciding. When you say you’ve had 50 treatments does that mean you have gone 50 different times to have the procedure or does that mean shocks? Do the benefits out weight the risks involved? I have never researched this topic on my own.

    1. I’ve gone 50 different times to have the procedure, and it’s one shock per procedure, so yes to both. 😊 The biggest side effect is long-term memory loss, so some events in my past have been erased from my memory. If someone describes the event, I may be able to recollect some of it. This loss is frustrating, but for me, the benefit is more important. Also, ECT is a last resort treatment, like if you’re in a depression but even adjustments to your meds aren’t helping, then they may recommend ECT.

  3. this is a great post as it is extremely informative and shows the reality of ECT and its importance in the treatment process of depression. This really does help some people especially because of the mental image that has been associated with ECT and how its always linked with words like ‘LOOSING YOUR PERSONALITY’, ‘IMPAIRED JUDGEMENT’ and ‘CONFUSION’ whereas the reality might be way different. This blog too is written to spread awareness about mental health and depression and i hope we all together will be successful some day with our aim.

  4. Firstly, I’ve never had ECT.
    I have been present during the procedure when I was a trainee nurse. I did not like the experience, it was traumatic , I think mainly due to close relative having had ECT in the 1950’s and being told negative things about it many times from when I was a young child. In those days a general anaesthetic was not administered first which I find horrifying. During the procedure I experienced as a nurse in the 1980’s the patient was administered a G.A. first.
    I’m sure they have come a long way in the advancement of the procedure, for example, with the measurement of dosage etc.
    It is hard for me to change my thoughts on ECT as they are emotion based and traumatic so it would be very difficult for me to undergo the procedure for myself. On the other hand it is really helpful to know that you have found it helpful Barb 🙂
    I think it is between the patient and their medical professional to decide what is best for an individual. I don’t think people should be scaremongering on social media about it as it might cause great anxiety to others. I hope this person’s words haven’t wounded you at all Barb ❤

    1. I’ve read that in the past ECT was administered without anesthesia, which is horrible. I understand why you wouldn’t be able to do it yourself. I was taken aback when I first read the reply on Twitter, but then I went to the website and realized it was just scaremongering. Thank you for your concern. 🌻

  5. Barb, there are always people trying to dissuade us from doing medical treatments, even medications. We have to do what helps us most. Sometimes we have to give up a little, but it is better than the alternative. If it makes your life better, that is what is important.

  6. I’ve had treatments from 2000-2010 starting with series of 12 for a month long inpatient stay a few times then spreading out for maintance. Parts of my past I don’t remember anyways… and that just blended into my time periods of treatments. I’d have a massive headache afterwards and would sleep the afternoon. I am stronger and healthier I have ever been. Starting pill combos in 1996 .. therapy.. ect treatments, last in 12/2010 .. I only have Xanax as needed today. – Terri in FL

    1. I sleep through the afternoons, too, but fortunately, I didn’t have headaches. I’m so glad it helped you and that you’re on only one medication now. Thank you for sharing your experience. 🌻

      1. Exactly! Just like with my meds (which I’m not currently on because I don’t have insurance) but they work for me. For a long time, a few family members thought I shouldn’t need meds. I go off my meds too much & I can even tell you for me, personally, meds are the best choice. They help me. That’s what matters.

  7. I dunno. I have to say that this quote above from the (very famous and well-respected) Peter Breggin “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.” ” completely applies to me after getting electrocuted, which is pretty much like ECT without anaesthesia. I consider it an excellent way to die, since it gave me all the death symptoms including the white light etc., but since I didn’t stay dead, I’m screwed and yes, indeed, lost personality, function, get some severe headaches that make me crawl on the ground sometimes puking, extreme emotional instability, anxiety and terror, whatever. I used to have severe depression before it for decades, selfharm, whatever else, and it only got eventually worse after a time period of the brain injury (diagnosed by Michael J. Fox’s doctor as a brain injury which he wished there could be a lawsuit for, since I would have gotten bucks, in his opinion) making the inside of the brain swell so I felt sort of cheerfully out of it. Maybe if I got electrocuted again in some shorter time period I would just keep getting the semi-stoned dysfunctional-but-not-caring thing over and over. *shrug* Doing hardcore things to the brain has results. The only lady I knew personally who had actual ECT was from Eastern Europe and was a pleasant nice cheery semivegetable without emotion or affect. They had given it to her since her boyfriend had died, and so she didn’t really dwell on that sad event which was a positive, but even as a young woman in her 20s, she was done, had just become a nice grandma-acting person. I have no personal experience with it beyond that.

    1. I’m sorry you went through the ordeal of being electrocuted. As with all psychiatric treatments, different people respond in different ways.

      1. I agree. Bodies are different than each other, and my own body is different now than it was 30 years ago. If something seems to work for someone, that is good.

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