New figures show doctors give 1,300 ECT treatments every week

David Brindle, Social Services Correspondent
Saturday October 2, 1999
The Guardian

Doctors are administering 1,300 treatments a week of the controversial ECT treatment for depressive illness, government figures revealed last night.

Results of a keenly awaited survey of the extent of electro-convulsive therapy show that 2,800 people - two-thirds of them women - were given the treatment during the first three months of this year. Of 700 patients treated while detained under mental health law, 59% were given ECT without their consent.

The findings, released by the department of health, are certain to trigger fresh argument over the safety and effectiveness of the treatment, by which patients are given an electric shock to cause a therapeutic seizure.

Judi Clements, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said: "This confirms our grave concerns about the extent to which ECT is still being administered, particularly to older women and particularly without consent."

The figures emerged 24 hours after the government published new standards to improve mental health care, including greater rights for people with mental illness and more openness in treatment.

The statistics are the first collected since 1991 when treatments were running at a rate of about 2,000 a week. Although direct comparison is difficult, the trend is clearly down. According to the new figures, which cover both NHS and private hospitals, almost 68% of patients given ECT are women and more than 40% are over 65.

Robert Kendell, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said women were more likely to get the treatment because they suffered more depression.

Older people were more likely because they were more prone to side effects of drugs, the main alternative, or were more resistant to them through repeated prescription.

"Use of ECT has been declining steadily ... since the 1950s, but it is still by far the most effective treatment for severe depression," Dr Kendell said.

Opponents of ECT use say it often causes memory loss and can have worse effects. A survey by ECT Anonymous, a pressure group, found that of 500 people complaining about adverse effects, 87% had felt pressured into having the treatment.The college of psychiatrists has itself previously warned of poor training and supervision of doctors administering ECT, as well as inadequate facilities and outdated equipment.