Electric shock therapy has a long and controversial history as a treatment for many mental health issues. Infamously depicted in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, electric shock therapy has gained a reputation as a brutal and inhumane punishment for those struggling with their mental health.
This film does indeed portray the reality of a small portion of patients from the early days of electric shock therapy treatment. Even so, the dramatic portrayal of electric shock therapy differs immensely from how the treatment has typically been administered, especially from how it is used in hospitals currently.
Today, electric shock therapy has been shelved in favor of talk therapy and more effective medications. Although it is no longer used as commonly as it was in the past, shock therapy for depression, schizophrenia, mania, and dementia is still widely used by mental health professionals when other types of treatment fail.
So, first, what is shock therapy?
What Is Shock Therapy?
Electric shock therapy sometimes called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), is a procedure that sends minor electric currents through a patient’s brain. By deliberately causing a short seizure, electric shock therapy attempts to alter a patient’s brain chemistry with the intent of lessening the effects of a specific disorder, if not curing them entirely.
Before electric shock therapy can be administered, a series of tests and examinations must take place. First, the patient and doctor must discuss and explore the available treatment options for their disorder. Next, medical health professionals will determine if electric shock therapy is right for that patient by collecting a complete medical history and conducting a complete physical exam, psychiatric assessment, and an electrocardiogram to ensure that the patient’s heart is healthy enough for this treatment. A treatment plan will be constructed, and then the first procedure can occur.
Patients will be put under general anesthesia at each session, fitted with an IV, and given a muscle relaxant before a nurse readies the procedure’s electrodes.
Electric shock therapy is completed over several sessions. These sessions are often administered over two to four weeks, at a rate of up to three sessions per week. Most sessions take between five and ten minutes, but preparation and recovery time can extend treatment time.
Electric Shock Therapy Of The Past
Electric shock therapy has changed and developed over its life as a medical treatment. For instance, shock therapy for depression has its origins in the eighteenth-century, when the London Medical Journal cited intentional seizure induction as a treatment for various psychiatric disorders. However, it wasn’t until the late 1930s when an Italian physician invented electric shock therapy, paving the way for the treatment as the public understands it today.
Rising to prominence as a treatment for depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders, electric shock therapy soon became common in hospitals and psychiatric facilities worldwide. Before this, Metrazol’s medication was used to induce seizures medically, but the process was often traumatizing. In search of a safer and less upsetting option, doctors and medical researchers began to explore other avenues for achieving similar results; electric shock soon became an easy solution to this problem.
Originally touted as a more humane manner of achieving these results, the electric shock therapy of the 1940s and 1950s was often just as terrifying as Metrazol’s seizures.
Patients also experienced intense side effects associated with the treatment. During this period, electric shock therapy side effects often included severe memory loss and broken or fractured bones. Patients also reported long-term and debilitating confusion. Electric shock therapy was often administered without anesthesia or muscle relaxants, so patients were conscious throughout the procedure. Little action was taken to mitigate these and other negative side effects of the treatment.
At psychiatric facilities, the terror of electric shock therapy was increased when it was used as a tool for abuse. In some hospitals and asylums, difficult patients were threatened with this treatment or received non-compliance punishment. This abusive behavior increased the stigma surrounding electric shock therapy and led the general public and mental health professionals alike to renounce the treatment.
Current Uses For Electric Shock Therapy
However, once modified and regulated, electric shock therapy is no more dangerous than any other medical procedure. As used today, electric shock therapy can help address various conditions that do not respond to other treatment methods.
In general, doctors and mental health professionals will only use electric shock therapy as a last resort for patients that have not experienced any relief through all other available treatment options. Extensive medical tests are completed before treatment begins, and a team of experienced health professionals monitors the treatment itself closely.
Physicians recommend that patients continue taking psychiatric medications to enhance the effects of electric shock therapy and lower the chance of relapsing once treatment has ended.
Electric Shock Therapy Side Effects
Like almost all medical procedures, electric shock therapy does have a few notable side effects, although it is largely considered by medical professionals to be safe for patients. Additionally, unlike the past electric shock therapy, today’s treatments are much safer and more comfortable for patients.
Common electric shock therapy side effects include:
Memory Loss: After treatment, some patients may struggle to recall events from the day of treatment and the few weeks or months before treatment. Called retrograde amnesia, this side effect typically improves within a few months after the treatment course is finished. Although extremely rare, permanent long-term memory loss has been reported as a side effect of electric shock therapy. Patients may struggle to remember the years leading up to treatment. Again, this extent of memory loss is extremely uncommon.
Confusion: In the first few minutes or hours after the treatment, patients may feel unsure about their identities, their relationships, or their reason for being at the hospital. This side effect often dissipates shortly, although older adults may experience more profound or longer-lasting confusion.
Medical Issues: Individuals with preexisting heart conditions may want to avoid electric shock therapy. This treatment may cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, potentially triggering more serious heart problems. Additionally, as is common in any procedure that requires anesthesia, further complications may occur.
Physical Issues: Directly after electric shock therapy, some patients may experience physical side effects, such as nausea, headaches, jaw tension, or muscle pains. These side effects are typically short-lived and can be treated with over-the-counter medications. They do not typically last longer than the time of the treatment course.
Patients should work closely with their doctors to monitor their side effects and track their progress.
What To Do Next
After learning what shock therapy is and how its side effects could manifest, and its current and past uses, individuals may feel that electric shock therapy is right. Patients should be sure to consult their doctors to discuss the treatment course that is right for them and their specific disorder.
However, the first step for someone experiencing depression or other mental health issues should seek a licensed therapist’s aid. MyTherapist is an inclusive, accessible, and inexpensive service that allows you to bypass common barriers to accessing mental health services.
After completing a short questionnaire, MyTherapist can match you with a credentialed therapist who can address your needs on your time by providing effective and personalized counseling through your computer, tablet, or phone. Clients can receive counseling through written messages, live chats, phone conversations, and video conferences; you can choose the method that best suits your availability and comfort level. Users are invited to maintain anonymity, and everything shared with counselors is protected under federal law.
Don’t wait. Head over to MyTherapist to get the help you need.
Electric shock therapy, better known as electroconvulsive therapy, is used to treat myriad mental illnesses, including severe depression, mania, and schizophrenia. It is not an appropriate choice for individuals living with mental illnesses treated effectively with talk therapy or medication.
Is electric shock therapy still legal?
ECT treatment is still legal, yes, for both Unilateral ECT and Bilateral ECT. ECT treatments are usually used when other treatment methods such as CBT therapy or medication fail. ECT today is much safer and more precise than when it first gained popularity as a treatment.
What are the side effects of electric shock therapy?
Side effects of ECT most often consist of memory loss and confusion, particularly directly after the ECT procedure. However, for most, the benefits of ECT far outweigh the side effects.
What does ECT do to the brain?
ECT works by sending a direct current to the brain, inducing seizure-like symptoms, to reset the chemical balance. ECT delivery is targeted and specific and done in multiple sessions over an extended period of time.
Does ECT change your personality?
ECT is generally an effective treatment for severe depression and other mental illnesses. It does not change the essence of who you are. However, it may lessen symptoms associated with depression, which can significantly impact how you feel daily.
Can ECT make you worse?
Questions about ECT include worrying that the procedure might make you worse. ECT is not generally known to have this side effect. Still, some patients may report that it was ineffective or left them feeling worse in terms of their ability to remember things, specific events, or in the cloudiness or confusion they felt after the procedure was complete.
Does ECT work for anxiety?
ECT works for anxiety when the anxiety symptoms are caused by acute depression. For generalized anxiety, ECT is not an appropriate choice of treatment. Other therapies and medications to address various forms of anxiety have proven to help individuals living with anxiety.
How do you know if ECT is working?
Just like any treatment for depression and other acute mental illnesses — medication, talk therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, etc. — will begin to show results within the first few sessions or weeks of the treatment, with significantly increased improvement after longer treatment periods.
Does ECT kill brain cells?
No brain damage occurs with the proper administration of ECT ECT can actually improve brain cells' growth. ECT is much safer than it used to be, much more precise in its delivery, and much more tightly controlled. Anyone considering ECT treatment should feel completely at ease and safe with qualified professionals administering the treatment.
How can I find ECT in my area?
Talk with your healthcare provider to see if ECT is right for you. They can refer you to a mental health professional who can assess you properly. Your insurance provider will also have a directory of in-network mental health professionals who can assess you and determine the best treatment based on your needs and physical health.