On Mental Illness: The Electroshock Controversy

By Jack Bragen
Wednesday December 08, 2010 - 04:46:00 PM

The movie “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” has shaped how mentally ill people are perceived by a generation of Americans. In one of that movie’s final scenes, the main character, played by Jack Nicholson, has received either a lobotomy, or else massive electroshock treatment (It is not clear which) and has become essentially a vegetable. The big, Native American character (who, for most of the movie pretended to be unable to speak) mercifully smothers the protagonist to death with a pillow, and then rips a fixture out of the floor, hurls it through a window—and then runs away, presumably to live as a “normal” person. 

One perception fostered by this movie (and the book on which it is based was written by an ex psychiatric patient) is that electroshock, also known as ECT, turns a person’s mind into silly putty. Coincidentally, the patient’s rights movement, responsible for many reforms of the inhumane and bad treatment in the mental health treatment system, has objected to ECT for decades, calling the treatment inhumane and barbaric. 

And yet, there remain many psychiatrists who continue to be ECT enthusiasts. They claim that electroshock effectively treats severe, clinical depression, which is unresponsive to antidepressant medications. ECT has been reformulated to use a smaller amount of current through the brain, and the treatment is done with the patient under general anesthesia, or at least, asleep. Psychiatrists claim that the newer ECT is safer and has fewer drawbacks compared to its more primitive, older version.
Results of electroshock vary. I have met someone who said it was the only thing that worked to get her out of severe depression. I have met someone else who said ECT made little or no difference. Another person was offered ECT by her psychiatrist, and declined it. Her depression was later resolved without the use of shock. 

Electroshock is known to cause long-term amnesia. This memory loss may or may not get better over time. Some people, due to shock treatment, have lost much of the memory of their childhood. 

In 1990 I was briefly an inpatient at Herrick. In the psych ward I was “friends” with a red-haired woman, apparently in her fifties. (By this I mean that I talked to her.) At one point, I saw her huddled against a wall with her hands covering her face. I asked her what was wrong, and she replied that she was “terrified to go upstairs.” I didn’t know what this meant. Months after being released, I was to learn that ECT was performed on the top floor of Herrick. 

Opponents to shock claim that ECT patients become terrified during the course of treatment. ECT doesn’t involve just one zap; it entails many over the course of weeks. 

I do not have an answer concerning the controversy about electroshock; but I know for sure that I wouldn’t want this treatment for myself.