Is electroconvulsive therapy barbaric or life saving? Here’s my experience with ECT


Today’s Guest Blogger is Frances Coleman-Williams mental health writer, patient turned professional, blogging to raise awareness. Read more:

When electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was featured on Call The Midwife, I was involved in a thread on Facebook initiated by a friend who stated they were ‘glad ECT is no longer used’.

I had no idea this was a commonly held belief.

t seems unrealistic portrayals, such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, have led to people thinking it’s barbaric and dangerous.

However, this is not the case.

As someone who had ECT to treat severe depression when nothing else would have worked soon enough, I feel in a position to speak about this controversial treatment.

What is ECT?

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ECT is prescribed by a psychiatrist when someone experiences serious life threatening symptoms of mental illness, including suicidality, refusing to eat or drink, psychosis with severe loss of touch with reality, catatonia or other risky or life threatening behaviour.

They are physically assessed for suitability first.

Before the treatment, the patient is given a general anaesthetic and muscle relaxants (this prevents injuries that used to happen). Electrodes are then applied to one or both sides of the head, and a small electrical current is applied to cause a brief seizure.

It is not entirely clear how it works but it appears to realign brain chemistry that’s altered by severe mental illness.

The patient may suffer some side effects, such as headaches, muscle aches, memory problems, sickness or confusion. Long term, there is a small risk of memory loss, personality changes or loss of skills.

It is considered reasonable to accept the small chance of side effects since it is a life saving treatment and side effects can be reduced by using unilateral rather than bilateral electrodes (position of the electrodes).

Between six and 12 treatments are given, two sessions each week; an improvement is usually seen within two to three sessions, and the treatment continues until adequate improvement is achieved.

Studies show 80-95% of patients saw an improvement; considering other studies show that anti-depressants only work in 40-60% of patients, ECT effectivity is very high.

What are the pros and cons of ECT?


Proven positive results when other treatments have not worked.

The use of anaesthetic and muscle relaxants make it safer than in the past.

It brings about fast results.

It’s a life saving treatment.


It has a negative reputation.

Side effects can be severe.

Some physical health problems (eg high blood pressure) makes ECT too risky.

It’s expensive.

Effects may not be long-term, and it needs to be used in conjunction with other treatments (medication and psychological therapy).

What was my experience of ECT?

Is electroconvulsive therapy barbaric or life saving? Here's my experience with ECT
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When I was experiencing severe depression, I was feeling completely hopeless, unable to eat; I’d had made attempts on my life and the risk of me completing suicide was high.

I had already tried different medications that hadn’t worked, and we didn’t have time to wait for a new medication to be effective, so I was offered ECT.

I was so unwell that the psychiatrist could have prescribed it without my consent but I reluctantly and hopelessly agreed.

Although I experienced severe headaches and some patchy memory loss, I believe having ECT saved my life.

It was not a miracle cure but it lifted me enough to give the medication time to work, and enabled me to engage in therapy.

If I was in the same position again, it would be important to weigh up the need to treat the severe symptoms with the possibility of side effects.

It can be incredibly scary when you’re offered ECT but I hope to allay anyone’s fears – it is not barbaric or dangerous; yes, there are some side effects but it’s an incredibly effective, life saving treatment.

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I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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