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What is Electroshock Therapy?

By Garry Crystal
Updated Feb 07, 2024
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Electroshock therapy is a medical procedure used to treat mental illness. The treatment, also known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), consists of short bursts of electricity administered to the patient's brain. It is sometimes used to treat severe depression when antidepressant medications have been of no use.

Italian neurologist Ugo Cerletti began investigating the benefits of electroshock therapy 1938. he observed that pigs about to be slaughtered were electrocuted into unconsciousness in order to make the process easier. Cerletti concluded that this procedure could be useful to patients who suffered from mental illness. Only a year after Cerletti made this discovery, the therapy was introduced into the United States.

During the next three decades, hundreds of thousands of patients were subjected to ECT to treat a variety of conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, and even homosexuality. By the 1960s, however, it had begun to find its credibility as a treatment seriously questioned. Psychotropic medications had become widely used as a treatment for mental illness, and antidepressants were seen as a more humane form of treatment than pumping electricity through the brain.

In the decades since then, however, electroshock therapy has once again gained popularity as a treatment. It does show some promising results for patients that antidepressants have failed to help, which has prompted new interest in the treatment. According to research undertaken by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), ECT has around a 30% higher rate of success in treating depression than medications.

Statistics from the APA have shown that a patient suffering from severe depression can be brought back to normal health in as little as three weeks with the use of electroshock. An report from 1990 claims that this therapy is the safest and most effective treatment for severe depression, and in 1998, 100,000 shock treatments were performed in America.

Electroshock therapy has come a long way from the procedures used in the early days, but many people still associate it with negative depictions in a number of popular movies and books. Peter Bregen, a psychiatrist and author, is a very vocal opponent of ECT, and he claims that undergoing the procedure is similar to playing Russian roulette with the brain. Proven side effects include memory loss, cognitive problems, headaches, muscle pain, and nausea.

The choice to use this type of therapy lies with the individual. In most places, ECT can only legally be performed with the consent of the patient. It cannot be forced upon someone as a treatment, and written consent must be given by the patient or a court-appointed guardian.

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Discussion Comments
By anon933146 — On Feb 14, 2014

I should have added that I had bilateral ECT. My husband got my medical records and in them it said if my seizure didn't last long enough, I received a second shock. This occurred many, many times as they wrote I was resistant to shocks and used the maximum strength and length. No more me.

By anon933145 — On Feb 14, 2014

I had ECT in 2006-2007, with 36 treatments at least. I had worked as a RN charge nurse prior to an auto accident which led to severe depression. My husband said I was not adequately informed of risks, long term effects, etc. He was told this was the only treatment and was more or less forced to sign.

He said at first I had zero long or short term memory, and could not be left alone for my safety. I had to go through cognitive therapy. I am better at long last but still my memory is horrible and I have lost years of my life. I cannot recall the most important years of my life starting with marriage, the births of my children, until now, 30 years later.

I am slow processing things, remembering new things, etc. It is so frustrating. I could go on but it would serve no purpose. Thank you. No more me.

By anon339373 — On Jun 22, 2013

I know of someone who was forcibly ECTed when they had advanced central nervous system lyme disease. It happened in Connecticut. The press and the state covered it up and the doctors and hospitals responsible took out a contract on the person's life after they filed a lawsuit.

The patient was actually a doctor who had been dropped off at a hospital and was not examined and never received an infectious disease or neurology consult. He responded rapidly to IV antibiotics, but was left with a severe brain injury. The doctor had written the hospital up with the state of Connecticut about a year prior and it turned out that a number of other doctors had documented he had Lyme Disease, including "meningitis with cauda equina," "peripheral polyneuritis" and "arthritis" in 1992. The person was ECTed in late 1999. The victim's name was Dr. David Ferris DO.

By anon234378 — On Dec 11, 2011

Peter Bregen, Dr. William Glasser and Dr. George Weinberg have proven that shock therapy is not only dangerous but can cause early dementia and Alzheimers, among a host of other dangerous health problems.

By anon234377 — On Dec 11, 2011

No evidence, none, zero that shows electroshock therapy is good for anything, except lining the pockets of the psychiatrists, doctors and the psychopharmaceutic industry.

Read "Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous To Your Health" by Dr. William Glasser. Check it out for yourself.

By anon161756 — On Mar 21, 2011

I'd like to know if ECT or any other application of electrical stimulation (i.e. lightning, alpha-stim, etc.) to people's heads is known or found to cause permanent short-term and/or long-term memory loss to the patients or persons receiving it?

Is it common to experience memory loss from such circumstances?

Is it possible to restore memories lost under such circumstances?

Is it considered by doctors a desirable result for patients undergoing ECT to lose their memories?

Has it been found in patients or people who've experienced such episode(s) to consider losing their memory as a desirable therapeutic result?

By anon111093 — On Sep 14, 2010

I would like to see statistics on the number of people helped. Lets see those "normals" after electroshock therapy. Are they truly healed? Come on! This is an evil, insane person's invention to get his own crazy head fixed, while torturing others. There are proven workable solutions to mental illness.

The truly mentally insane cannot be helped. A bipolar, needs to figure out by observation, and study if his life, his environment, what is triggering his mood swings, is that easy. Then he should change his environment, these could be simple changes. But people are lazy to work at anything, they like a quick fix, drugs, etc.

No person is normal, we all have aberrations, but we are not all mentally ill. Drug companies would like us to believe that we have chemical imbalances. They profit billions from our mental illnesses. Does it make sense that 6 out of 10 people have some mental illness, chemical imbalance? Lets be wise and see through the scam.

By anon76018 — On Apr 08, 2010

When you get to the point in your life you are suicidal because of depression, ECT is an option that many bipolar and severely depressed people are willing to undergo.

Its not crazy if it helps a person's mind become "normal", like "normal" people want.

By breakofday — On Feb 07, 2010

I thought that they actually outlawed the use of electroshock therapy! And to think that the APA is endorsing it? That's crazy.

The article says that the procedure has come a long way, but still other than a different set of electrodes and a fancier chair with new straps, how much better could it possibly be?!

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