Oprah shocked that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is still used today

Oprah shocked that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is still used today 

By Liz Lockhart

Oprah Winfrey seemed utterly shocked recently when she discovered, live on her show, that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is still used regularly to treat bipolar disorder and depression.

The revelation came during an interview with Carrie Fisher. Carrie is an actress and writer who really hit the big time as Princess Leia in Star Wars. Some of us will remember when she was found in a skip appearing to have completely lost her mind. This was a public spectacle played out on the television. I can remember feeling that I had invaded her privacy when I saw it on my TV.

Carrie Fisher told Oprah that she receives electroconvulsive therapy regularly to treat the depression caused by her bipolar disorder. Oprah appeared to be taken aback and asked:

‘They still do that?’

The answer to that Oprah is ‘Yes indeed they do.’

Many people thought that the use of this method of treatment had died out these days but about 100,000 people receive ECT every year in the United States. It is also still used in Australia, occasionally as the first-choice treatment in, for example, potential suicide cases. And yes, it is still used her in the UK although generally only on very severe cases and only as a last resort.

One imagined that the treatment had been banished into history by now. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest portrayed such a vivid image of this ‘seemingly barbaric’ treatment. We are told that nowadays the administration of ECT does not involve any ‘seizure-like’ jolts or twitches and that because it is no longer a dramatic procedure no one is interested in it anymore and so people have assumed that it is no longer used.

What is ECT?

ECT was first developed in 1938 but its use did not become popular until the 1940s and 1950s. Fortunately the procedure is regulated much more strictly than it used to be with a set of ‘patients’ rights’ laws. 

ECT uses bursts of electricity in the brain to produce a mild seizure. It is not known with certainty why this works although specialists believe it releases neurotransmitters in the brain and stimulates underactive parts of the brain.

Opinion is really divided on the subject of electroconvulsive therapy. Some patients have reported dreadful side effects which include loss of memory whilst others hale it as their salvation. 

It has been over seventy years since this method of treatment was first introduced and yet still it is not fully understood. Whilst there is such a risk of negative side effects I wonder why we don’t understand more about it.   

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