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The ECT Controversy

Although many believe they have been helped by electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – in which seizures are electrically induced, usually to treat severe depression – ECT also involves serious risks. In fact, many others believe it has destroyed their lives.

The risks – permanent amnesia and permanent deficits in cognitive abilities – have been confirmed by researchers such as Dr. Harold Sackeim, a well-known proponent of ECT, whose 2007 study in Neuropsychopharmacology (www.nature.com/npp/journal/v32/n1/full/1301180a.html) concludes: “This study provides the first evidence in a large, prospective sample that adverse cognitive effects can persist for an extended period, and that they characterize routine treatment with ECT in community settings.” And an excellent series in USA Today (www.clrp.org/pdf/PatientsDanger.pdf) also highlighted the dangers of ECT.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to classify ECT equipment in its high-risk Class III category — which comprises only 10 percent of medical devices — despite repeated pressure from ECT equipment manufacturers to reclassify it into the lower-risk Class II. In his testimony (www.power2u.org/downloads/ECTtestimonyDanFisher.pdf) before an FDA panel on January 27, 2011, Daniel B. Fisher, MD, PhD, said that “the short-term gains of ECT do not justify its associated brain damage, memory loss, cognitive deficits and increased risk of death.” Citing research showing that ECT does not decrease suicide, Dr. Fisher recalled a 19-year-old man he had seen in an outpatient clinic who was experiencing major depression and had been slow to respond to medication: “He was admitted to an inpatient facility where the psychiatrist immediately started a series of 8 ECT treatments. Upon discharge, his depression had slightly lifted, but he could no longer recognize his friends. He was so distraught over this side effect of the ECT that he hung himself.”

ECT survivors speak openly about the devastating effects of ECT. In her acclaimed book Doctors of Deception: What They Don’t Want You to Know About Shock Treatment, Linda Andre wrote, “Eventually you realize that years of your life have been erased, never to return. Worse, you find that your daily memory and mental abilities aren’t what they were before.”

Last January, when Dr. Oz aired a one-sided segment on ECT, numerous shock recipients posted comments on his website in protest. Sonia Weaver wrote: “I believed the doctors who told me the procedure was safe and effective and am left with major memory loss and permanent cognitive deficits. Those of us who have been damaged by ECT deserve to have our voices heard as well.”

I am not suggesting a ban on ECT. Even Marilyn Rice – a former high-ranking government economist who founded the Committee for Truth in Psychiatry (an organization of shock survivors) after 8 shock treatments wiped her memory clean of years of specialized knowledge and forced her into retirement – did not promote a ban. Linda Andre writes that Rice “always maintained a healthy respect for the kind of emotional suffering that made people desperate for relief, no matter how fleeting.” All Rice sought was the opportunity for truly informed consent. “I’m not against shock,” she would say. “I’m against lying about shock.”

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