For many people, the idea of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may stir up distressing movie scenes of electroshock therapy, or other myths and fears they might have heard about the procedure. These days ECT is a highly effective and safe procedure for people with severe depression and other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and mania.
Around 7,500 people in Australia receive this treatment each year. People are anaesthetised and asleep during the procedure, it is not painful, and it doesn’t involve surgery. The actual procedure involves an electrical current being passed through two electrodes attached to the head for about 5-10 seconds.
The research tells us that for people with severe depression who undergo ECT, around 60-70 per cent experience a significant improvement in symptoms they’re experiencing. Approximately 80 per cent notice a reduction in their depression symptoms. So, this procedure is an option that doctors will consider for severe depression or other mental conditions, especially when other treatments have proven ineffective.
As with all medical procedures there are risks and benefits and one of the main concerns with ECT is a side effect of memory loss. It’s not uncommon for people to have short term memory loss when trying to recall something from the morning of, or the day before, the procedure. In rarer instances people can have some longer-term memory loss.
Overall however, the safety risks of ECT are about the same as any minor medical procedure. It’s very important that people are well informed about the risks and discuss ECT with their specialist mental health practitioner, to decide if it’s good procedure for them.
People receiving ECT will usually undergo 8-12 treatment sessions with a few days break in between. During this time, family members or close friends can be a wonderful support. People who have received ECT need to continue on with other treatments such as psychological talking therapies, and also any pharmacological treatments, even after they have had the procedure.
Some people are critical of ECT and there are still a lot of myths and fears in the community as it has been poorly portrayed in books and movies, often being the experiment of a mad scientist. There are also some realistic concerns about side-effects, and more research is still needed about the long-term effects on memory and thinking. Having said that, many people who have had very severe depression will tell you that ECT saved their lives and the trade-off for the side effects was well worth it.
For people who are considering ECT for themselves for their family member, having an open conversation your doctor is very important. More information about ECT can be found in Beyond Blue’s ‘What works for depression’ booklet or on the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists website.
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