Electroconvulsive Treatment

First thoughts about ECT and finding out more

Many people we spoke to said that when they or their loved ones were first offered ECT, they were surprised the treatment was still offered by psychiatrists. Some had negative ideas of ECT from TV shows and movies, like the 1975 film “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” They said the media often portrayed ECT as a frightening procedure. A few people mentioned that they had noticed the ECT suite when walking around hospital, and were taken aback to see it or thought “they’re going to take me to the extremes and I’m going to end up there”.
While some people knew very little about ECT before it was offered to them, quite a few of the people we spoke to knew something about ECT. Dafydd’s relative had had ECT years ago with unpleasant results, but Jane’s father had had ECT and it had worked well for him. She said having ECT herself gave her a “connection” with him because the same thing worked for both of them. Tania’s grandmother had had ECT and her brother was a psychiatrist and had joked about it, but also said its effects were “incredible”.

Others we talked to had had medical training themselves and had seen ECT take place, or worked in an ECT suite. Some recalled stories of ECT helping people improve, and this gave them confidence in the treatment. Others recounted unpleasant stories or didn’t remember much about it. Some stories were mixed: Tracy had helped with ECT as part of her training as a nurse, and she remembered one particular lady making a good recovery, but then getting worse when the treatment stopped.
Some people were concerned about how ECT was supposed to work e.g. “not a very exact science” or what actually happened during the treatment such as why people couldn’t walk properly afterwards and why they “jumped around” when they had ECT. Despite his medical training and work as a consultant, Sunil didn’t know much about how ECT worked, but didn’t think anybody really knew how it worked.
Many carers, wanted to find out more before the ECT procedure. David Y wanted to know how long the shock lasts, how it travels, how it kick starts the brain, what sort of people it’s used on, how long recovery takes, why people get headaches. He found the small ECT leaflet he got didn’t really tell him anything. Some carers were told in detail what to expect by the health workers, though others only found out about ECT by hearing about it from their loved one after it had happened. 

People who could access the Internet read online information about ECT and found that “quite helpful”, but they also found “horror stories” about ECT. Others visited the hospital and spoke to health workers to get more information, or spoke to people who had had ECT (see for more ‘Getting information about ECT’). Doing research helped some people decide to opt for medication instead.
Although some people wanted to know information about ECT, others – particularly those who were very unwell “distressed, confused and disoriented” – were less concerned. Because ECT was offered when their illness was at its worst, it often seemed the only answer, or they were so unwell they just accepted it. John Z was withdrawn before he had ECT and so was unable to understand any information about it. Some people, like Tracy, felt that ECT was the logical next step. Although Tracy had had experience of ECT through her medical training and didn’t think it worked, she did have ECT because she says, “I was so desperate”.
You can read more about decision-making on this page: ‘Deciding whether to have ECT

Last reviewed January 2018.


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