Electroconvulsive Treatment


Age at interview: 56

Brief outline: Jenny had a difficult childhood and lost her father when she was four. Latterly she had a very stressful working life and was admitted to hospital to have ECT following a suicide attempt. She felt ECT had a ‘buffering effect, but - like antidepressants – made no significant impact upon the depression she experienced.

Background: Jenny is a retired consultant and is married with four children. She describes her ethnic background as Anglo-Irish.

Audio & video

Jenny thinks that her experience of mental distress as an adult, has its roots in her experiences of a difficult childhood growing up in Ireland. Jenny’s father died when she was young, and her mother struggled to cope as a single mother looking after four children - one of whom had cerebral palsy. The village priest assaulted Jenny on a regular basis from a young age. As a teenager she describes a number of ‘trivial suicide attempts’ and was at one time a “missing person”. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a short while. 

Despite these difficulties, she was the first person in her school to get a place at a top university, where she went to read Medicine. She says that ages 19-40 could be described as her ‘golden years’. Jenny met her husband, got married and had four children. Jenny trained to be a palliative care doctor and moved to the South West where she got a job as a Consultant.

Some time later, Jenny collapsed and hit her head on the corner of a bath. She suffered a right parietal infarct (a brain injury) as a result and lost the ability of speak for a while. The injury had a significant impact on her life as she was not able to drive or look after her children for a while. At work, she had a significant disagreement with her colleague, where she was assaulted and subsequently not believed. She was moved into another job and for several years she did not have a single day off and worked in an isolated environment. It was during these years that Jenny felt her depression started in a ‘recognisable way’. Her husband suffered a series of health problems, which she felt were caused - at least in part - by the stress caused by her colleague. Jenny felt highly angry about this. Jenny went to see her GP, was prescribed antidepressant medication and was later referred to a psychiatrist. She continued to work during this time. 

She later was retired on mental health grounds from her job at a hospice. In 2009, Jenny was admitted to hospital because she was suicidal. It was during this admission that she was given ECT, age 53. Before having ECT, she had a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” feeling about it and didn’t have any experience of people being helped by ECT. Jenny’s consultant explained ECT to her without looking her in the eye but she trusted what he had to say. She had already been on various different antidepressants and it was suggested to her that she would get better more quickly if she agreed to ECT. She found that the standard of the built environment in the inpatient ward was very poor. She was sharing a room with a woman who suffered with severe anxiety, and although she had sympathy with her, she found it very difficult. Jenny wanted to have ECT in part, so she could get out of hospital more quickly. Her eldest daughter, who was a medical student at the time, was very against ECT so Jenny omitted to tell her she was having ECT. Jenny’s husband supported the decision to have ECT as she felt he was a man who always wanted to do “something” rather than nothing. Jenny actually looked forward to having ECT as the nurses she met were very warm and it was an opportunity to leave the inpatient ward for a while. She was sometimes able to remember the journey back from the unit where she had ECT, but sometimes could only remember events later on that day. 

Jenny felt that nothing – apart from the most recent version of psychotherapy she has received– has actually made any substantial difference to how depressed she was. She felt ECT wrapped her up in layers of cotton wool and that she felt ‘buffered’. She felt she lost small bits of memory, and that days seemed rather fragmented and disjointed. 

Over the years Jenny has had many different diagnoses, including reactive and endogenous depression and personality disorder. However she thought what she suffered from can best be described as grief – for a lost childhood and for a lost career. In the subsequent two admissions to hospital, ECT was never suggested again as a potential treatment option. She has had continuing memory problems but doesn’t know whether this was the the effect of ECT or a number of other issues such as her brain injury, early signs of Alzheimers, or the effect of the medication she takes. Jenny now takes a melatonin based antidepressant as she felt there was a seasonal element to her depression. 

She found that her ECT was delivered ‘thoughtfully, professionally and with care’ and that people approached the treatment with a lot of rigour. Jenny thinks that the most useful information source about the experience of ECT is personal experience.


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