Debate still rages over electric shock treatments

by Marlene Deschamps
The Westend Weekly

For anyone who thinks that electric shock treatments are a thing of the past they should be aware that this is not the case.

Electric Convulsive Therapy (ECT) was a stable weapon against the symptoms of mental illness until the mid 60's and 70's. At this time use declined largely because of the increased use of drugs to treat psychiatric ailments.

But ECT has made a comeback, mostly in the treatment of depression related symptoms. In 1997 Ontario doctors billed OHIP for 12,400 treatments. That is a jump from the 1993-94 figure of 9,506. Patients usually receive two to three treatments per week for two to four weeks.

Both patients and some noted doctors are coming out with information that states that this treatment is cruel and barbaric and that it should be banned. They say that this treatment is unproven and inherently inhumane. They also state that effective humane alternatives technique does exist and should be promoted. Persons who have been subjected to this form of treatment maintain that it has ruined their personal lives and careers. They fault the psychiatric profession for not informing the long term effect of ECT's. While the memory loss that occurs is not permanent, but only temporary, their patients are saving loud and clear that this is not the truth.

Many books are written by persons who have received treatments and consider themselves lucky to have survived. They maintain that their a memories did not return. Wendy Funk who received ECT's maintains that she did not know who her husband and sons were. She also could not return to a very lucrative career as a social worker. Her memory never returned to any point where she could resume the life she had prior to treatments.

Survivors ask why if this is such a harmless treatment with only temporary memory loss and an answer to depression that doctors themselves don't consider it for themselves when they become depressed. One survivor said that the doctor will commit suicide before allowing a treatment for themselves that they readily prescribe for others.

Support groups are being set up around the globe to have a concentrated effort to ban ECT's. They are being joined by noted doctors who argue against doctors that push for this treatment. There is a coalition that is a non-profit federation of 80 grassroots groups in 11 countries open to public and survivors of human rights violation in the psychiatric system.

There are claims that electroshock is a safe and effective treatment for depression and alcoholism. This was the treatment of choice for Wayne Lax of Kenora. He went through 25 years of ECT's and combinations of medication. One has to ask that if a treatment used for this period of time does not appear to be a successful plan of treatment why it was not discontinued and other methods found to deal with the problem.

Wayne maintains that he has no memory of driving impaired on medications, divorcing his wife or his numerous suicide attempts. It appears he was in some kind of revolving door that never made it possible to get out of the system. At age 44 he was confined to a nursing home with the sad news that he would never be capable of living on his own. Despite Wayne's years of what he terms as total waste he is not against the Psychiatric profession or the doings that are used to relieve symptoms. He is against the continued use of a program that obviously is not working for certain people. Wayne was never diagnosed with a mental illness but for alcoholism and depression, both which developed after the death of his brother. No one looked at this as a grief issue and steered him towards treatment for alcoholics or grief issues. Instead he was sucked into a system that he spent 25 years in. It was only a car accident that led to decisions that changed his life. He has now joined with support groups from around the world that are calling for a ban on ECT's. He does acknowledge that there are medications that help people suffering from mental illness but feels they require more monitoring for effectiveness. He faults the medical doctors who do not follow the psychiatric's programs and feels they can prescribe, change and add additional medications at will, Wayne was at one time on 17 different medications, many of them contradictory in terms of side effects and usage. Wayne asked why if a man continually tries to take his life, how many times can he do that before they say he's not getting any more of that medication because it is obviously not working.

Opponents of ECT maintain that it damages brain cells and memory and serves no useful purpose. Many people are physically injured despite muscle relaxants used to prevent contractions during induced convulsions.

While the controversy rages between the survivors and the proponents of ECT, the general public is mostly in the dark about the issue. Most people that I have spoke to in regard to this issue were very surprised that anyone got ECT's and thought they were banned long ago. Maybe it is time we asked sonic questions of the Health Ministry as to why this treatment is still considered safe and effective when hardly anyone other than the doctors who administer it agree. Those that receive the treatment, except for an isolated few, keep fighting to get it banned based on what it has done to their lives. Maybe someone should listen.