Ken Bennett/AP
Psychiatrist Dr. Mariano Piedra poses with
the equipment he uses for 
treatment. (AP)

Shock Therapy Still Used to Treat Some Cases of Severe Depression

August 11, 2008 08:52 AM
by Emily Coakley
When medications don’t work, some people with depression undergo electroconvulsive therapy.

Shock Treatment Prescribed for Thousands

A controversial therapy that involves running an electric current through the brain to induce a seizure is still being used to varying degrees of success. Approximately 100,000 people each year seek electroconvulsive therapy, also known as electric shock therapy, according to MSNBC.

ECT is used to treat severe depression when medications haven’t worked. Critics say the side effects, including memory loss, aren’t worth the mood-altering benefits.

In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates observed that convulsions had an effect on people’s moods. As psychiatry and neurology developed in the early 1900s, researchers started looking at ways to induce convulsions, according to Brain & Mind Magazine. Electroconvulsive therapy was developed in 1937 by Ugo Cerletti, a neurologist who was looking for a safer method than chemical-induced convulsions.

The movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has a scene in which Jack Nicholson’s character involuntarily undergoes ECT, and it’s an image many people still conjure when they hear the practice mentioned.
Brain & Mind reports that some psychiatric hospitals used ECT improperly in the 1960s and 1970s to control patients, not treat them.

MSNBC’s article comes at a time when psychiatrists are devoting more time to prescribing drugs than to talk therapy. According to an article in The Bulletin, a Philadelphia-area newspaper, “a new report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry…reveals that fewer psychiatrists are providing psychotherapy to patients during office visits, instead prescribing drug therapy—medication—at increasing rates.”

Liz Spikol, author of the blog “The Trouble With Spikol,” took issue with the MSNBC story and the headline mentioning a “comeback.”

“That phrase has been employed by so many news agencies and scientific journals in the past years, it’s meaningless. … This has literally been the media spin for 18 years,” she wrote, and listed 11 media outlets that she said had written similar stories.

The story, she said, lacked any news. “Everything has been said before, down to pat phrases and sentences. It’s like it was written after its author got a press release from a medical center or doctor who practices ECT.”

She may have a point. A 2006 Independent article is titled “‘Inhumane’ shock therapy is on rise.” According to the article, almost 850 people receive ECT each year in Ireland. Dr. Michael Corry, a psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychosocial Medicine, wanted the practice to stop. He “likened the procedure to something you would see in ‘death camps’ and says he is appalled that it is still being carried out in Irish hospitals,” wrote Niamh Horan in the story.

Reference: Anxiety and Depression


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