New Zealand ECT rates cause concern

Rotorua electric shock capital

August 17, 2006
The Daily Post
New Zealand

By REBECCA DEVINE Mental health patients in Rotorua and Taupo are three times more likely to get shock treatment than anywhere else in the country.

Latest figures show the area is the shock capital of New Zealand with Lakes District Health Board notching up the highest rate of people receiving electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or shock treatment.

The figures have prompted at least one psychologist to call for the health board to launch an urgent inquiry.

The rate of treatment for the Lakes area in the 2004/05 year was 22 per 100,000 people – three times the national average of 7.5 people per 100,000.

ECT involves passing an electric current through the brain to induce a seizure, altering brain chemistry to regulate a patient’s mood.

Advocates for the procedure say it is one of the most effective ways to treat depressed patients who don’t respond to other forms of treatment.

However, those against it say it is primitive, causes long-term brain damage and should be banned.

The Lakes District Health Board also had the highest percentage of patients over 20 who were seen by a mental health service and went on to receive ECT. Nationally just 0.4 per cent of people seen by mental health services get the treatment but Rotorua’s rate is more than 1.1 per cent.

Five per cent of those who received the treatment in the Lakes area were given it without their consent under the Mental Health Act.

A statement from Lakes District Health Board communications officer Sue Wilkie said the board was “looking at the figures quoted in the report and carrying out some analysis around that information”.

“Until such time as that work is complete, it would be inappropriate for the DHB to make any further comment,” the statement said.

The report released by the Ministry of Health does not explain why the rate is so high in the Lakes region. However, it says regions with smaller populations are more likely to have fluctuations from year to year and some areas have better access to the service.

Dr John Read, a senior psychology lecturer at Auckland University, said its use had generally either stabilised or declined so it was troubling the Lakes figures had increased.

There was certainly no evidence there were three times as many seriously depressed people in the area, so the only explanation had to be that it was simply being used more often, he said. Dr Read described the treatment as an overly medical approach and there were better ways to treat depression, like looking at the causes.

He said women between 60 and 70 were common recipients of the treatment because they were prone to depression.

“Why is that? The best predictions are loneliness and poverty. How is electricity going to solve that?”

But the country’s top psychiatrist has said Lakes’ figures are still low on an international scale.

Health Ministry mental health chief adviser David Chaplow, who was in Rotorua yesterday, said he was happy with the figures. While he would look at any investigation carried out, Dr Chaplow said the jump certainly wouldn’t prompt the ministry to order such an investigation.

Dr Chaplow said because Lakes was a tiny health board in terms of population the results could be easily skewed. The increase could be caused by more people being seen for depression or psychiatrists who are happier using the treatment, Dr Chaplow said.

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