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Shocked Out of Depression

Yael Schuster

Once viewed as a terrible procedure forced on the mentally ill, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is becoming more popular as it helps deeply depressed people emerge from a pit of despair. But the suspicion lingers. Is shock therapy the bedeviled curse some people claim, or the miracle cure proclaimed by many others?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

A man is led into a room and instructed to lie down on a narrow hospital bed. He stares up at the silent, expressionless faces above him, seven men and women clad in white. They are there, he knows, to hold him down. His meek attempts at humor are ignored. His eyes dart around in terror as he watches the proceedings: bite guard shoved into his mouth, gel applied to his forehead, the dial on an electric shock machine being turned. For the next agonizing 30 seconds, the man is held down on all sides, his face crimson, eyes squeezed shut, limbs flailing as his body convulses on the table. Guttural moans emit from his throat, his face the picture of torment. This famous scene depicting electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is from a 1975 film and is a striking portrayal of how mass media can affect the attitudes of an entire nation. Indeed, despite advances in technique, and research demonstrating its efficacy in treating serious depression and other psychiatric disorders, it is questionable whether ECT will ever fully rise above its tarnished reputation, begotten in large part by this single movie scene (and the novel it is based on). The shadow cast over ECT by the long arm of pop culture lingers until today: Despite its success rate, it still has a controversial public image and is considered a last-resort treatment option. Speak to patients who have received ECT and you’ll hear two dramatically different reactions. The same treatment elicits this: “Biggest blessing ever and the only reason I’m alive,” “Finally — something that worked,” “The best thing I ever did,” and also this: “It was a nightmare,” “Horrible,” “Worst experience of my life.” So what’s the truth about shock therapy? Is it terrible or life saving? The conundrum is answered in a single word: memory. But first, a brief history.

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