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Friday, June 19, 1998 Published at 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK


Electric shock patients demand rights

It is not clear precisely how ECT works

A group of former mental health patients have held a demonstration outside the Royal College of Psychiatrists to protest against the use of electric shock treatments.

They claim electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) has ruined their lives. It is estimated about 22,000 people are given ECT in Britain every year. The protestors, who call themselves ECT Anonymous, say this represents far too many people.

The group believes it is wrong that such a treatment can be given to patients without their consent under the Mental Health Act. They want the figures on the risks of giving ECT - which range from memory loss to death - to be reassessed by the government.

Severe depression

ECT has long been controversial, but many psychiatrists believe it continues to be a valuable form of treatment, especially in cases of very severe depression.

It involves passing an electric current across the brain to make the patient have a fit. It is the fit and not the electricity that is deemed to be beneficial, although it is not known exactly how.

At one time it was given without anaesthetic and patients would have big muscle spasms. Psychiatrists who support the use of ECT say it is now far less barbarous.

Without consent

Andy Bithell from ECT Anonymous says it is wrong for the treatment to be given without regard for the patient's own views. He says he had to engage a solicitor to try to stop the treatment being given to him when he became depressed after a life crisis.

He says the treatment impaired his memory. "You come round with a horrifying headache," he now recalls.

"And in my case, as in many people's cases, I was so disorientated that I didn't just know who I was but what I was. It was like suddenly waking form the deepest dream and having that brief second of confusion but lasting hours."

Effective treatment

Professor Brice Pitt, a member of the public education committee of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, believes he has saved lives by administering ECT. He says it is effective in 70-80% of cases.

"It is the single most effective treatment for very severe depression," he says. "When I talk about severe depression, I'm talking about people who feel they don't want to live anymore, who feel they are wicked - don't belong in the world anymore, who feel absolutely wretched physically, who really want out.

"Now, you might feel that if people feel that way they should be allowed to disappear off the face of the earth. But, in fact, we know that these are signs of severe depression which can be arrested and the people brought back to normal by the use of electric therapy."

Dissenting voices

But there are those within the medical profession who believe the usefulness of ECT has been overstated, and may even be unnecessarily dangerous.

A recent study published in the Psychiatric Bulletin found that one in four consultants had experience of death or medical complications during ECT.

Joanna Moncrieff, is a senior registrar at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. She believes the studies into the benefits of ECT are inconclusive: "I felt is was a very degrading procedure to have to administer to another human being and I know that I am not alone in feeling this.

"A lot of junior doctors find it a very distasteful procedure to be involved in. Patients find it both degrading and very frightening. We ought to find alternatives. One of the alternatives is simply to look after people until they get better."

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