Struggling with treatment-resistant depression? Electroconvulsive therapy, once called electroshock therapy, can offer relief when medications can’t.

News, Women's Health, Men's Health | 5 years ago

Electroshock Therapy Isn't Scary Anymore

Once considered a radical, and even scary, treatment – electroconvulsive therapy (sometimes still called electroshock therapy) is a safe, painless and effective psychiatric treatment.

The image that probably comes to most peoples’ minds when they think about electroshock therapy, is that chilling scene from the 1970s film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where Jack Nicholson’s character is given electroshock therapy against his will – while awake – as a form of punishment.

This movie and Ken Kesey’s novel that it’s based on (with the same name) are thought to have tarnished the general public’s view of electroshock therapy as a dangerous treatment used to overpower and control.

That, of course, is nothing like modern-day electroshock therapy, now called electroconvulsive therapy (or ECT).

“It’s something that has unfortunately received a negative reputation throughout the years,” says Ervin Thompson, MD, an ECT specialist and psychiatrist at Atrium Health. “But once people make use of it, they almost always find it helpful. Not to mention, it’s painless and extremely safe. In fact, it’s safer than having a baby and less painful than going to the dentist.”

What is electroshock therapy?

Electroshock therapy is a psychiatric treatment that can provide relief from mood disorders, such as severe depression and bipolar disorder, that haven’t responded to other forms of treatment like antidepressants (drugs used to treat depression and other conditions).

As the name describes, electroshock therapy involves electrical currents that pass between electrodes, which are placed on the patient’s scalp. Those currents cause a brief seizure (lasting a few seconds). During ECT, the patient is asleep – under general anesthesia – and feels nothing.

It typically takes 3 to 4 treatments before a patient will see results. And depending on the patient’s case, they’ll undergo a series of treatments for weeks or even years.

Wondering how ECT works? No one knows for sure

“We don’t understand how it works, but we know that it does work,” says Dr. Thompson. “One theory is that ECT somehow resets the circuitry of the brain, causing those circuits to function in a more normal way – changing the conditions in such a way that they do not induce depression.”

According to Dr. Thompson, about 7 out of 10 people who complete ECT treatment report that they're no longer depressed. And another 1 out of 10 say they feel 50 percent better. Which means ECT helps about 8 out of 10 people who complete treatment.

“In medicine, an 80 percent response rate is considered to be very high,” says Dr. Thompson. “So, if you have treatment-resistant depression, electroshock therapy is the most effective treatment available in modern medicine.”

Living with severe depression

Cheryl Lattimore, 64, has been battling depression since her early 20s – including severe depression later in her life.

Things reached a critical point when she had tried every type of antidepressant medication available, but nothing worked. When the depression got so bad that it was getting in the way of Cheryl’s ability to do her job, she reluctantly retired from her position as a school counselor.

“So, there I was at home and severely depressed. In fact, I was suicidal, but I didn’t have the energy to end my life. That’s how deep and dark and down I was,” she says.

“I heard about ECT from my psychiatrist, who told me, ‘Cheryl, if this medication doesn't work, then that's the only thing that's left. You need to consider that.’”

But because short-term memory loss is a possible side effect of ECT, Cheryl was too scared to try it.

Fortunately, one of her best friends helped Cheryl see past her fear to the possible benefits.

She recalls her friend saying, “What could be worse than what you’re going through right now? I’ll go with you to every appointment and bring you back home. We’ll do this together.”

“And that’s what we did,” Cheryl says.

When the clouds parted

Cheryl began receiving ECT from Dr. Thompson and his team at Atrium Health, one of the few healthcare systems in the region offering ECT and one of the most experienced, having performed thousands of ECT procedures.

Cheryl didn’t notice a change right away but once she did, she was thrilled with the results. 

“The feeling I get when I know the treatment has worked is: Hey, this is life and I can handle it.”

“I could get up in the morning and I actually wanted to talk to my friends when they called or respond to their emails. When I’m depressed, I don’t feel like talking.”

These days, after 6 years of ECT, Cheryl is socializing a lot. She goes out to lunch weekly with her best friend and is involved in several church activities, including leading a group that visits nursing homes. She also likes to stay active, going to the gym most mornings and walking her dog throughout the day.

And while she has experienced minimal memory loss, Cheryl says it's a small price to pay for the benefits of not being depressed and feeling good every day.

Cheryl’s nurse, who’s been working with her for 5 years now, sees a night-and-day difference in Cheryl: “When she’s depressed, she’s very flat, wants to sleep all the time and is just completely uninterested. As she gets better, she gets back to her regular self – she has such a great personality,” says Jane McCutcheon, RN, a psychiatric nurse at Atrium Health.

Cheryl now gets treatments once a month.

“It's such a relief not to worry about getting depressed again, because I don't think I will – as long as I’m receiving ECT. It changed my life.”

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about electroshock therapy and other brain stimulation treatment options, please visit brain stimulation services at Atrium Health or contact us at 704-512-7578.