Should We STILL Be Using Electric Shock Therapy to Treat Depression? It's Been Controversial since It Was First Used in the 1930s. So, as Psychologists Call for a Ban

Article excerpt


WHEN Gabrielle Blackman-Sheppard told family and friends she was to have electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) for her severe depression, they were horrified.

'The image they all had was of someone being forcibly strapped into an electric chair,' recalls Gabrielle, who has suffered from bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, for nearly 30 years.

'Many people still see it as a form of torture. But I was desperate. I was more terrified of not having it because, at the time, I was spending every second of my life fighting the urge to kill myself.'

Doctors had tried numerous drug combinations to try to get her condition under control, but with no success. As she became increasingly suicidal, they suggested ECT as a last resort.

'After the first ECT treatment in 2008, I immediately felt better,' says the 60-yearold from Wolverhampton. 'It was like my brain had been put back on its rails.

'I had greater clarity of thought, my speech, which had become slurred, was a lot clearer, and I was able to read again. Before, I was so ill I couldn't concentrate on the words on the page.' Over the next year she was to undergo 23 treatments in all, with similar benefits.

It might surprise many people to learn that ECT is still being used to treat depression.

NICE, the Government's health watchdog, has judged it suitable for use in severe depression, and every year around 12,000 Britons undergo the treatment.

Among those ECT has helped is former Coronation Street actress Beverley Callard, who played barmaid Liz McDonald. Last year, she spoke of how ECT helped put her on the road to recovery after a severe bout of depression.

ECT first emerged in the 1930s after doctors noticed patients with epilepsy often felt happier after a fit. It was thought that the electrical 'storm' in the brain that caused seizures also boosted mood.

DURING treatment, the patient is put under anaesthetic and given a muscle relaxant to reduce the risk of serious injury when they go into spasm.

Electrodes are placed either side of the forehead and a current is passed between them. This triggers a seizure lasting between 20 and 50 seconds and a single course of treatment can involve up to 12 sessions, spread out over several weeks.

Eighty years on, there is still no conclusive rationale for why zapping the brain with bursts of electricity should work. Some studies suggest it may stimulate the release of 'feel-good' chemicals in the brain, or promote the growth of new blood vessels.

It could also be that it has a placebo effect -- the benefits being due to the extra attention patients get when they receive treatment. Typically, ECT sessions can involve two or three nurses, a psychiatrist and an anaesthetist.

Whatever the explanation, there remains 'a lot of stigma and myth attached to the treatment', says Dr Susan Benbow, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

And now, following a major review of the evidence that suggested it has little or no benefit for most people, there are calls for the treatment to be banned. Furthermore, the review found that ECT damages the brain's ability to function properly, including wiping large chunks of patients' memories.

The review, by psychologists Professor Richard Bentall, from Bangor University in Wales, and Professor John Read, of Auckland University in New Zealand, pooled the results of dozens of earlier studies into ECT for depression and schizophrenia. …