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Shock Therapy Buzzes On

Posted on Aug 6, 2008

Tens of thousands of the desperately depressed sign up every year to have electricity-induced grand mal seizures even though nobody has ever figured out why the treatment works or how severe the associated brain damage is. The good news: You no longer have to be awake, and muscle relaxants now keep your bones from breaking.


Most people might be quicker to associate electroshock therapy with torture rather than healing. But since the 1980s, the practice has been quietly making a comeback. The number of patients undergoing electroconvulsive therapy, as it’s formally called, has tripled to 100,000 a year, according to the National Mental Health Association.

During an ECT treatment, doctors jolt the unconscious patient’s brain with an electrical charge, which triggers a grand mal seizure. It’s considered by many psychiatrists to be the most effective way to treat depression especially in patients who haven’t responded to antidepressants. One 2006 study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina found that ECT improved the quality of life for nearly 80 percent of patients.

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By G.Anderson, August 7, 2008 at 8:21 am Link to this comment

To put it plainly, there are many millions of people who have become “gorked out”, due to pscychotropic medications. Often these people become candidates for ECT.

There are also many thousands who have become suicidal while on SSRI’s. Though the phamecuetical companies have paid millions in out of court settlements to keep many of the more notorius cases out of the media. 

And there are many people whose symptoms of depression, become much worse after ECT. The point being, at what point is the cure worse than the disease?

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By cyrena, August 7, 2008 at 7:41 am Link to this comment

By G.Anderson, August 7 at 5:40 am

Desperate people will try anything to feel better.

One question remains un asked in all of this, were their symptoms caused by their treatment, or were they caused by their disease?


Well, you’ve got a point here G Anderson. On the first statement for sure. Desperate people will try anything to feel better, and desperate people do desperate things. I’d say that applies to a lot of desperate situations, and not just mental and physical pain. Now I’m not in a position to quote statistics here, but I’m very sadly aware of the number of desperate people who will take themselves out, just to feel better. Here again, I don’t suspect that the average person who has NOT experienced that type of chronic pain, is likely to be able to imagine it.

As for the second part, about the symptoms being caused by the treatment or the disease, I can certainly see where that might be relevant in the treatment of some PHYSICAL diseases. I mentioned before that I’ve known people who ‘lived’ WITH cancer, and DIED from the chemotherapy.

That isn’t the case with ECT in the treatment of depression however. In other words, it would be impossible for me to imagine that an UNDEPRESSED person could just demand that a physician administer electric shock therapy to them, just for the hell of it. Like what…to see what it might do? So no, I don’t think that ECT CAUSES clinical depression.

It might cause some other symptoms (like those that you’ve described) but no, shock therapy doesn’t create the disease. In many cases, the ‘disease’ is some form of illness like bi-polar disorder or a similar disorder that is organic in nature, and has gone UNDIAGNOSED and therefore untreated for so long that the patient can literally become STUCK in the depressive cycle of it.

I’m not familiar with any cases of SSRI’s destroying the brains ability to function, but then, I suppose that’s a possibility, depending on the individual. You sort of make it sound like it’s a ‘given’ though. I would dispute that.

I’ve noticed how ALCOHOL can and frequently does destroy the brain’s ability to function, and I suspect far, far, far more frequently than the SSRI’s. But, I don’t have any statistics on that either. I don’t think electric shock therapy does anything to help a brain that has been destroyed that way though.

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By G.Anderson, August 7, 2008 at 6:40 am Link to this comment

Desperate people will try anything to feel better.

As will psychiatrists do just about anything to make money. Most Psychiatrists long ago gave up on the idea of psychotherapy, as their masters the HMO’s won’t pay for it, they make more money pushing pills. 

Of course they will tell you things are different now than they used to be, that the technique is more refined, less barbaric. That would be a matter of opinion, and not fact.

How ironic it is, after years of Anti depressants, and anti psychotic prescriptions, when every pill in the psychotropic arsenal doesn’t work, when the brain becomes traumatized to the point it no longer functions, that those same ones who don’t recognize, how SSRI’s destroy the brains ability to function, prescribe ECT, the ultimate insult to the brain.

It’s also true, that many people don’t do well with ECT, and end up worse off than they were before they started. Staring into the distance, like a head of cabbage, an empty body with no life, and no sign of intelligence. 

Some require monthly jolts for years on end. The are even implants, VNS, that administer a steady stream of electricity, just like a pacemaker.

And this without even an accepted theory of how ECT works, or what causes Depression, or what causes any of the growing list of diseases it’s being happily applied to.

One question remains un asked in all of this, were their symptoms caused by their treatment, or were they caused by their disease?

At some point it becomes too hard to tell the difference.

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By cyrena, August 7, 2008 at 3:37 am Link to this comment

From the article

“...When Bill Russell tells people that his severe depression was relieved by shock therapy, the most common response he gets is: “They’re still doing that?”


Well, this was my response nearly 40 years ago, when this procedure was recommended for my mother. Actually, my response was NO WAY IN HELL!! Are you crazy? (it was an old Austrian doctor who finally recommended this after absolutely nothing else worked). He had to explain it to my dad and me, and later try to convince my mother.

Witnessing the misery of clinically and chronically depressed people -particularly loved ones- makes it far less easy to disregard what seems like a most barbaric of treatment options. For her, it worked, though beyond the initial and few follow-up treatments, she didn’t continue to have them, as I noted is suggested here, for some patients.

Hard to say whether or not those treatments those many decades ago have anything to do with the increasing dementia that she suffers now. On the other hand, it seems overwhelmingly clear, (certainly in hindsight) that the additional 30 years worth of a mostly productive life made it a life saver for her.

So, I’m with Bukko on this. Maybe it’s not the best way to live, but for most of us, it still seems better than dying, or watching loved ones suffer.

I disagree with Hoolea that a little skilled psychotherapy could have probably gone a lot farther. If skilled psychotherapy was gonna work for the bulk of those undergoing ECT, they wouldn’t be undergoing it. I also don’t agree that psychiatry has completely foresaken the ‘talking cure’ because for those who can benefit from it, (and it seems to be particularly beneficial in cases where the depression is situational, rather than organic; such as in the mourning of the loss of a loved one) it IS still used, and successfully. But for those for whom it does NOT work, (and there are many) ECT has been the only help.

It concerns me that so many people now associate ECT and that sort of therapy with torture. (we can thank Dick Bush et al for that) because under no circumstances are they conducted in the same manner, or for the same purpose. Having electrodes connected to ones penis or other parts of the human genitalia, with electric shock pulsing through is pure torture. Any ‘electric’ anything done as part of an interrogation process is pure TORTURE! It’s intended to inflict severe pain, and that’s the bottom line.

Needless-to-say, ECT is intended to RELIEVE severe pain, and is conducted when the person is sedated. It surprises me that so many people consider this desperate measure treatment option so much more critically than they consider chemotherapy for cancer patients. Most people wouldn’t think twice about undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, even though the statistics don’t bear out to make it anymore successful than doing without it, although I recognize that there are multiple variables in the success rates.

Still, what that says (at least to me) is that most of us cannot consider the pain of mental illness in the same terms as physical illness. Mental illness is simply enough, a cancer of the thought process and the degrees of that impairment or pain can run the gambit, just as any physical illness or pain can. So, like any other cancer, there are various methods of treating it.

That’s not to say that I don’t continue to fervently hope that other less drastic and more successful treatment options will become available for the cancer of mental illness and all others. But I hope that more people will come to understand more of the dynamics of things like depression, so that when treatments (even when they are radical) aren’t delayed by an insistence on something that doesn’t work (the talking cure) in many cases.

Because, in that delay, far too many people often become victims of this still so difficult to understand pathology. The victim often has other victims.

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By Bukko in Australia, August 7, 2008 at 12:54 am Link to this comment

Hoolea, I used to look at ECT hrough a “Cuckoo’s Nest” frame. When I worked at a geriatric psych centre in Florida in the late 90s, I was aghast that it was making a comeback. But oftimes, talk therapy doesn’t work.

I remember one 50ish woman who had been a schoolteacher before she sank into clinical depression. She would walk around the facility saying “Call Dr. Kevorkian. Give me a lethal injection.” And she meant it. Wouldn’t eat, soiled herself because she was too down to even bother to use the bathroom… Psychiatrists couldn’t talk her up, SSRI meds didn’t help.

She’d get a course of shock therapy every three months or so when the depression exacerbated. For a week, it was like she had been hit upside the head with a board. Couldn’t remember her own name. The fog would clear, she’d have a good month or two, then sink again. Not the best way to live, but it sure beat dying. Sometimes that ECT is the only alternative.

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By Hoolea, August 6, 2008 at 7:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a nurse in the 80’s and 90’s I participated in the administration of ECT on maybe as many as 750 patients. About hald seemed to show improvement in the hospital, but it could be argued that the memory loss caused them to “forget” the depression symptoms. There were some who were simply never the same… The adults fared better than the elderly, but most of the elderly could not take medications because of their heart conditions.

Isn’t it a shame that psychiatry has completely forsaken the talking cure… a little skilled psychotherapy could probably have gone a lot farther.


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