Shock therapy: 'Ruined lives'

The BBC
Wednesday, 26 January, 2000

Pat Butterfield was a special needs teacher who loved her job and family and ran a choir and a brass band in her spare time.

Then in 1990 her father died. A couple of weeks later, still crippled by depression, and feeling unable to return to work, she visited her GP.

Her normal doctor was away, and the substitute GP decided to refer her to a psychiatrist.

Just three weeks after the death of her father, Pat, who lives in West Yorkshire with her husband, was hospitalised, and agreed to a treatment she believed would have her up on her feet and back at school quicker than taking medicine - or letting the grieving process run its course.

She told BBC News Online: "I didn't even know what the letters ECT stood for. I didn't know, and it wasn't explained to me that I would have electrodes attached to my head and that they would put an electric current through my brain.

Up to 400 volts are passed through a patient's brian

"All I knew is that I wanted to get back to work, and that I felt I should have been handling my father's death better, and that they had told me that ECT would work faster than drugs or the alternative, which was to do nothing at all."

Electro convulsive therapy is carried out under general anaesthetic, and a strong muscle relaxant is administered to patients to prevent the violent muscle spasms that the treatment would otherwise cause.

The patient is strapped on their back to a flat table, which in the event of a patient vomiting, can be spun upside down.

In the presence of an anaesthetist and psychiatrist, electrodes are attached to the patient's head and the electrical voltage is administered until the psychiatrist observes the patient's toe twitch. This is a sign that the patient, despite the relaxant drugs, is convulsing.

Pat's 12 courses of treatment, she says, have wiped out many of her memories, including some of what happened to her in hospital.

"I can remember that two people would come and get me and walk me past the hospital's offices to get to the room where they did it," she says.

"I was deeply ashamed, I was in my night clothes and I was being frogmarched past all the office workers."

She added: "I remember waking up and thinking that my head really, really hurt, and that I didn't know who I was or where I was.

"It robbed me of my memories. I only knew who my friends were because they kept coming in to see me.

"I lost all my confidence because I couldn't remember how to do things. I still have problems dealing with a lot of information.

"I used to be a multi-tasker, but I have problems even sorting things out in sequence now.

"I am also terrified of hospitals and doctors. I have never been back to one, I have never even been to see my GP since.

"I certainly did not give my informed consent to the procedure that I underwent. No-one told me what the side effects could be. No-one even explained to me what would happen.

"I have never been able to go back to work, and I certainly wouldn't have got as far as I have without the help of my family and friends."

Four years ago, Pat set up the help and campaigning group, ECT Anonymous, through which she met Beryl Manklow.

In 1983, Beryl went to her GP's suffering from back pains. She was eventually prescribed morphine for pain relief.

She said: "They told me that I was depressed and that I needed to come off the morphine so that they could try other drugs. And to do that, they said they would try ECT."

Beryl, now 61, said that she had heard of ECT, but only in a horror film when she was quite young.

Beryl remembered an image from a horror movie.

She said: "I had the horror film image in the back of my head, but I didn't believe they would be treating me using this mediaeval technique.

"I just assumed that medicine must have come on a long way and that I would be having a treatment which they said would leave me 'with a slight headache'."

Beryl had three or four treatments - she can't remember exactly how many - before her horrified husband Brian stopped the process and signed her out of hospital.

She said: "They would take me down to a tiny little cubicle and strap me into a narrow little cot bed.

"After it had happened, they would sit you in a little waiting room, and give you a cup of tea, as though you had just had an injection."

She says that she was never able to return to her job - she managed a fashion store in the Rugby area.

And as well as memory loss and mood swings, ECT, she believes, was responsible for leaving her with "terrible" recurrent headaches and neck pain.

She said: "It is a barbaric practice. Psychiatrists say it saves lives, but I would say it is more likely to push you towards suicide. It ruined my life and robbed my of my personality and my memories."