ECT & How Its Changing Mental Health

When my friend told me that she would be trying a new treatment called ECT for her depression, I naturally turned to the internet to learn more. I’d never heard of ECT so when I found out that it stood for “electroconvulsive therapy,” my suspicions peaked. The first thing that popped into my mind were mental hospitals where patients were mistreated and forced to undergo dangerous operations. Would it shock you to hear that this treatment is still being done today and is completely legal?

I was afraid that my friend would be hurt from the operation, but then I researched it further and learned that the process has been dramatically improved since it's discovery in the 1930s. Horrific depictions in movies painted a negative light on shock treatment; however, ECT has helped relieve symptoms of severe mental illnesses for thousands of people. The late Carrie Fisher even joked that she was a “shockaholic” for how much she benefited from ECT treatments. Mental Health America estimates that 100,000 people receive ECT in America each year.

So what is ECT?

Mayo Clinic* defines ECT as a procedure, done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain to intentionally cause a brief seizure. This induced brain activity has been shown to cause changes in brain chemistry that alleviate some symptoms of certain mental illnesses.Current practices of ECT are much safer--even pregnant women can receive ECT if they qualify. A single session takes about 15 minutes in the treatment room and approximately 30 minutes in the recovery room according to Hopkins Medicine**. The number of prescribed sessions varies with each patient. My friend, for example, was prescribed six weeks of ECT sessions, having one session for each week.

*https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/electroconvulsive-therapy/about/pac-20393894

**https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/psychiatry/specialty_areas/brain_stimulation/ect/index.html

You may qualify if:

Some doctors refer to ECT as a last resort option when medication and various therapies prove ineffective. My friend had been treating her depression for at least 12 years before ECT was even proposed as an option. Patients with severe depression, mania, schizophrenia, and catatonia are all candidates for ECT; but in order to be approved to undergo this treatment, they will need to go through a physical exam, psychiatric assessment, and electrocardiogram. This precaution is to make sure that the procedure will be safe according to your personal health.

What to expect when you’re expecting ECT:

You (the patient) will check into the outpatient part of the hospital, change into gown, have a physical exam, and then hop up onto a bed where you will receive an IV in your arm. Next, you are wheeled into the treatment room where a mouth guard will be offered to you. My friend recommends putting it in yourself before the muscle relaxer takes effect and a nurse has to awkwardly do it for you. This muscle relaxer is used to help minimize the seizure and prevent injury. A blood pressure cuff is strapped to one of your ankles to prevent the muscle relaxer medication from entering that foot. This foot will be the only bodily movement you make during the treatment and is how the doctor will monitor seizure activity. A doctor or nurse will tell you to count backwards from ten--signaling that the anesthesia will soon drag you into subconsciousness. Just before you go to sleep you see an oxygen mask placed over your nose and mouth and two cold, gel-coated electrode pads are positioned on your head. Hours later you will recognize your bedroom and wonder what you’ve been doing all day.

Symptoms after ECT treatment:

The main fear of ECT is the confusion or short-term memory loss side effect that occurs after each session. This can also be called retrograde amnesia. Remember Dory, that forgetful fish from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, the blue one with the voice of Ellen DeGeneres? ECT patients can expect to have Dory moments the days after their treatment. My friend would be conscious after her session, holding conversation, and would even be a little hungry. After a much needed nap at home, she’d wake up and not remember what happened after her IV was put in. No memory of the conversations had in the last hour and no memory of getting home. I’d explain to her what we did that day, and she’d nod as if my story made sense. The typical memory cycle for my friend was one hour--a good reason to only watch 30 minute shows. A few laughs here and there can be mutual and necessary to endure the temporary absurdity of the situation, but being patient with their mind is what they benefit from the most.

Besides the temporary memory loss, the other symptoms are: nausea, headache, jaw pain, sensory sensitivity, and muscle aches. Physical pain can be eased by a rotation of hot and cold compresses, sleep, and ibuprofen (depending on your doctor’s medical recommendation).

Concluding Thoughts:

The best part about finishing those six weeks was that my friend felt relief. Physical and mental relief from...something. I support the medical practice of ECT because this modernized procedure has helped her to feel better when nothing else could.