Shock Therapy for Depression – What to Know

I think you may need electric shock treatment for depression. When I heard these words coming from my psychiatrist I was terrified. I had so many questions. How does it work? Is it going to hurt? Will it be beneficial for me? Will I have any side effects? When you are not familiar with shock therapy for depression, hearing your doctor even mention it can be very overwhelming. The following article will provide you with some information on this type of therapy and give you a first-hand account from someone who has been through it.

What is Electric Shock Treatment for Depression?

Because of the stigma attached to it and the cost, shock treatment, also called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), is normally used as a last resort to treat certain mental illness. Most people will want to try other methods prior to choosing shock treatment. Here is an article detailing some of the best natural supplements to treat depression. I recommend you try these as your first resource. When you have tried everything such as medication, therapy, natural remedies and nothing has worked, that is when a psychiatrist may suggest ECTs. That being said, it is not a fool proof cure and it may not be successful for everyone.

According to the Mayo Clinic, electroconvulsive therapy “is a procedure, done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses”.

The amount of treatments required is different for everyone, but it is normally 6 to 12. Your psychiatrist will make that call based on your history and symptoms. They can be done as an inpatient or outpatient and will normally be every other day. In some cases, your doctor may suggest maintenance treatment once every two weeks or once a month to prevent relapse after the initial sessions.

As defined above, you will be put to sleep during the procedure which sends shock through the brain causing seizures. This can sound scary, but you do not feel anything as you are under general anesthesia. Nobody knows exactly why it works, but the shocks somehow reset neurotransmitters in your brain. Some say it’s almost like when you have an issue with your computer and you reboot it and the problem is gone.

The most common use for ECTs is to treat major depression or bipolar disorder when all other treatment options have been unsuccessful. It can help someone who is suicidal or has even been used to treat schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

What Are the Risks of Shock Therapy for Depression?

As previously mentioned, ECTs are commonly safe, but to make an informed decision it is important to understand the side effects that may occur.

  • Confusion: When the treatment is over, you may feel confused. You may not know what just happened, or what you are doing there. The confusion can last a few minutes or a few hours. In rare cases, most commonly in older adults, it can last several days. Personally, I did have some confusion, but nothing major. On the days when I had a treatment I was not allowed to leave the unit by myself for safety precautions. This meant that if I wanted to go smoke, I had to have a friend or family member accompany me.
  • Memory loss: The treatments may cause symptoms of amnesia in some patients. You might forget things that happened the week before, or even several months before, and the weeks during your treatments may be a bit blurry as well. This was the strongest side effect for me. I don’t remember events that happened up to 6 months before. Not to say that I forgot everything but there are many things that people told me afterwards that I did not remember at all. However, like my doctor told me, you won’t forget important things, like your loved ones or important events. An example I can use to better explain would be my Whitney Houston story. A few months prior to my ECTs she passed away. After the fact, someone was talking about this and I innocently said: “wait a second, Whitney Houston is dead?” I had absolutely no memory of this. However, around the same time, me and my ex husband broke up, I briefly moved to Alberta, and I came back to New Brunswick. These events I do remember.
  • Physical side effects: The physical side effects are minimal, and they will only occur the day of the treatment. These include: nausea, headaches, jaw pain or aching muscles. These can either be treated with medication or simply with rest depending on the severity. I remember by jaw hurting, and this is because of the seizures which may cause you to clench your jaw.
  • Medical complications: As we know, when a medical procedure involves being put to sleep, there can be risks of complications. During the procedure, your heart rate and blood pressure will increase and in rare cases this can cause serious heart problems. In my case, I did not experience any medical complications, and neither has anyone else I know who has had them.

Myths of Electric Shock Treatment for Depression

If you’ve seen the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you may be picturing shock therapy as someone who is strapped into a chair screaming in pain and agony. Because of this, there are many myths surrounding this treatment, as a lot of people still think that this is how it’s done.

  • It can only treat depression: Although treating major depression that includes suicidal thoughts and delusion is the most common use, it has also been used to diminish the mania symptoms in people with bipolar disorder or people with schizophrenia. When used to treat schizophrenia, it is used in those patients who have rapid onset symptoms or those who are catatonic.
  • It is only done in mental hospitals: You do not need to be in a mental hospital to get these treatments. When I got mine, I was hospitalized, but in a general hospital supervised by a psychiatrist. In some cases, they will even do it in other psychiatric facilities as an outpatient.
  • It’s dangerous: Because of that image we have of somebody strapped into a chair, a lot of people think it is dangerous. But ECTs have come a long way since then, and as you can see from my list of side effects, these are very minimal.
  • It can chip teeth and break bones: Again, this comes from the early days. Nowadays, doctors will give the patient a muscle relaxant prior to the treatment. Therefore, when the seizures occur, it eliminates the risk of chipping a tooth or getting a fracture.
  • It doesn’t work: According to many doctors, electric shock treatment is the most successful treatment for major depression, and this is especially true in patients who have the most severe symptoms. It is hard to pinpoint the exact success rate, but according to Psychiatric Times it works in 60% to 90% of cases.
  • It is used as a punishment: This may have been the case in the 50s and 60s, but not today. A patient who receives ECTS will be given full disclosure and must consent to it.

Patient’s Personal Experience with ECT

If you are looking for a quick video with a lot of information this clip is great. It gives the perspective of the medical professional as well as the patient’s. Although the camera is not allowed to be present during the actual procedure, the reporter sees it and explains that it seemed like it was over before it started. Nothing compared to the image we have from the media.

So, is shock therapy for depression the answer? I am not here to say that I am for it or against it, all I know is that personally it was a life saver. At the point when I got them, I had tried everything and had no will to continue living. I was ready to give up. However, if you feel like your symptoms are not at a point where this treatment would be required, I invite you to read the following article where I give you 7 tips on how to overcome stress and depression.

If your doctor has suggested these treatments for you, I suggest that you do your own research and decide for yourself if this is what you need to get better. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be informed. If you are not able to make decisions for yourself have a loved one or someone you trust assist you.

If you have any comments or questions, whether it be directly related to the treatments or on depression in general feel free to post them below and I will do my best to help you.

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  1. Wow Sylvie…. just lately I was wondering what exactly shock treatment was and this sure helps me understand it…thank you for the great article once again. I’ve never experienced depression but have seen many people go through it and I’m sure it can’t be an easy thing to go through. thank you

    • Thank you your comment. I am so glad to hear that I am able to give people more information on depression and treatments.

  2. I didn’t know there was a solution like this for severe depression or bipolar but I’m glad it can used as a last resort. It seems that humans brains just like computers need to reset sometimes and I think that obviously it’s erasing some of those neurotransmitters like you said. Very interesting stuff and a great read. Thankyou!

    • You’re welcome. Thank you for the comment. I don’t normally speak about my ECTs that often, and I’ve now realized how so many people have no idea about it. I’m glad I decided to write this.

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