Reimagining Electroconvulsive Therapy

I had the pleasure of attending an event earlier this week in which another local elected official personally discussed his own experiences with anxiety, all in the name of an anti-stigma campaign by our local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness.  One of the speakers at the press conference was a psychiatrist who discussed stigma surrounding mental illness, but he got a little bit more specific: He discussed ECT, or Electroconvulsive Therapy.

Electroconvulsive Therapy was once one of the cruelest treatments for mental illness imaginable.  It’s common use in American began in the 1950s and was largely brought into public view by the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It became a controversial treatment option, and with good reason: Patients were often treated against their will and with dangerously high doses.

That being said, that’s no longer the case.  Indeed, to say that the therapy has changed is an understatement.  From the Mayo Clinic:

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure, done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses.

The article goes on to note that ECT is used when other treatment – medication and therapy – is less effective.

Is it still risky?  Sure, like any therapy, there is the potential for side effects, including confusion, memory loss and other complications.  That sounds bad, but most of those side effects are also temporary.  That, and let’s be honest: Can you find an effective drug without potentially problematic side effects at this point?  Nope.

How effective is ECT?  Well, according to this article from Psychiatric Times, very: 60-90% of people have a positive response.

If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that the basic gist of my entire mental health crusade is anti-stigma oriented.  It didn’t really hit me until the press conference I attended how that stigma remains powerful when it comes to specific treatment modalities.  Multiple studies proved that ECT is an effective way of treating depression and mania that is otherwise treatment resistant, but older forms of its operation have convinced many people that it’s a terrifying and dangerous way of trying to rid yourself of depression.  Science has evolved to the point that this is no longer the case, and it is vitally important that we recognize this truth.

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