Electroshock Therapy Gets a Makeover

"If you were in your kitchen, touched your stove and got a convulsion, you would be in the hospital. It would be treated as an emergency. You might even be given anti-seizure medication to ensure that you do not get another convulsion," Breggin said. "Psychiatry is the only place where you damage the brain and call it a cure."

Because unilateral ECT is a shock to the nondominant, nonverbal side of the brain, controls a person's intuition, creativity and emotions, Breggin said patients may have a harder time explaining the side effects they might experience.

"So people when damaged on the nonverbal side can't tell you about it. It's a ruse," Breggin insisted. "Ultrabrief pulse unilateral is still damaging the brain, but it's less obvious. It cures by creating a delirium in which the patient is incapable of normal human emotion."

John Breeding, an Austin, Texas, psychologist, is alarmed by the state of the industry.

"The shock industry is the Enron of mental health. If they're honest, and you ask them, 'How does shock work,' they'll say they don't really know," Breeding said.

Oaks agreed.

"They look at a problem as physical -- drug, drug, drug, drug, drug -- then they'll try shock. The system is so oriented toward this medical model approach. Relapse rate is enormous, so what's their answer? Maintenance shock," he said. "What has happened in the industry is that research has discounted people's memories."

ECT experts recognize the controversial history of the procedure and acknowledge the stigma attached to it.

"The stigma affects providers and patients. The treatment is perceived by the public as brutal," Sackheim said. "Undoubtedly people don't receive the treatment, because they're afraid of it. In some cases it's quite tragic because they may not live."

ECT proponents hope that the newer form of ECT will encourage more people to seek the procedure to cure their depression.

"Finding ways to make ECT safer, beneficial, lowers barriers to accessing the efficacy of this procedure," said Dr. Lisanby.

Still Searching for a Cure

Doctors who use ECT are the first to admit that the complete cure for severe depression still eludes them.

"ECT can be rapidly effective in treating [depression] but always needs maintenance treatment to maintain effects," Lisanby said.

Don Weitz, co-founder of the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, a group that opposes the use of ECT, said that the American public is in the dark about its use as a treatment.

"Most people think it no longer exists. When I meet people in the street, they say, 'You're kidding!' And it's increasingly for elderly women," Weitz said. "Two-thirds of people who get ECT are women. This is not a treatment. It always causes brain damage and it targets women."

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