The wife of former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis has joined a growing list of people
endorsing a mental health treatmentonce thought of as something like
medieval torture— electroconvulsive therapy.
The once-controversial treatment, formerly known as electroshock therapy, pushes electric currents through patients’ brains, intentionally giving them seizures for brief periods.
Doctors don’t know exactly how it works, but they believe it “resets” the wonky parts of the brain. It is legal in the United States, though it’s illegal to give it to patients younger than 16 in Texas and Colorado. In some cases, with the permission of courts, doctors can force very sick patients to get ECT.
Physicians began using the treatment in the 1930s after they noticed patients with severe mental illness suddenly got better after they had seizures. In the next couple of decades, ECT got a hideous reputation. The bad rap wasn’t completely unwarranted, since doctors used to use such high doses of electricity they broke people’s bones. They didn’t use muscle relaxers or anesthesia, either.
The Jack Nicholson character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” definitely didn’t get knocked out when he got ECT in the iconic 1975 film about a loony bin.
Nicholson’s character Randle McMurphy is wide awake and lying on a table as a nurse dabs “conductant” on his temples and a doctor tells him he won’t feel any pain. He writhes on the table after the electricity starts coursing through his brain.
Take a look at the image of ECT etched in everybody’s mind after that movie came out:
The use of shock therapy declined until the 1980s, according to a Surgeon General’s report cited by The New York Times. In the ’80s reputable doctors began to acknowledge ECT worked remarkably well — as many as 70% of patients improved after ECT, according to that report. Musician Roland Kohloff described his experience with ECT to The New York Times in 1993.
“What I think it did was to act like a Roto-Rooter on the depression,” he told The Times. “It just reamed me clear and the depression was gone.”
ECT is not only effective, but it’s also a lot less scary-looking than it probably was in the ’50s. Dr. Oz posted this video of a severely depressed woman who volunteered for ECT because she knew it was the only treatment that would work. Her legs jerk slightly but her face remains expressionless as she gets the shocks.
Of course, some still associate ECT with torture. Just a couple of years ago, Dr. Charles Raison called ECT the “most reviled” treatment in psychiatry.
Given the skyrocketing suicide rate in America, though, psychiatrists will hopefully continue using safe and effective treatments at their disposal — even if the idea of shocking crazy people will always be unpleasant.
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