Electroconvulsive Treatment

Suzanne and John Y

Brief outline: Suzanne was given ECT age 27, during a hospital admission when she was very depressed and experiencing psychosis. She was catatonic, had stopped eating and drinking and was losing weight rapidly. John felt anxious about the treatment options available and was told medication would not work quickly enough. After three sessions of ECT he noticed some improvement. Now Suzanne has a few ‘blips’ but asks for help more readily and finds a range of techniques that help her well-being.

Background: Suzanne, age 36and John age 44, work in education. They are married and live together with their young son. Their ethnic backgrounds are White Irish and White British.

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Suzanne first experienced severe psychosis and depression in 2000/2001. She was in Wales when she first went to A&E and then later was admitted to hospital in Ireland (where she grew up). Suzanne’s first experience of the psychiatric system was a huge shock, and she hated being in hospital away from people whom she knew and loved and who could understand what she was like when she was well. She found the experience an ‘eye opener’ as she felt mental health staff were controlling her existence. At the time, she felt out of control of the situation and also that her own mind was out of control. She was diagnosed with “psychotic depression”, but this diagnosis wasn’t explained to her. Although technically a voluntary patient, she said she couldn’t leave hospital of her own accord. At the time she feared that she was going to be in hospital for years and felt that nothing was explained to her about her illness or the running of the hospital and what the patients did there.

Eventually she left hospital and was still taking olanzapine, an antipsychotic, and Effexer (venlafaxine), an antidepressant. She found she ‘bounced back’ quite quickly. However the medication had side effects and she put on over two and a half stone in weight. When she stopped taking it she lost the weight again quickly. Her husband, John, found that when she was coming off the medication there were periods when she would get very emotional. John says that mental health was ‘new ground’ to him and he hadn’t had any experience of the mental health system before.

Later, when she was living in the UK again, she again became very ill, very rapidly. Immediately before this she had just finished a PhD thesis. She had also developed a bladder infection that interfered with her sleep pattern and she had become depressed. She can only remember ‘snippets’ around this period, but was aware that the medication she had been prescribed (olanzapine and diazepam) wasn’t helping. Suzanne became catatonic and stopped eating or drinking. She lost a lot of weight and said that she just ‘existed’ for a while and didn’t have any input into anything. 

Suzanne now feels that after she submitted her PhD thesis, she should have taken time off. When she started to feel unwell, she went to A&E who told her that panic attacks were quite common amongst young women. The GP said give it more time and wouldn’t prescribe sleeping tablets. Suzanne went to hospital but felt her mental health wasn’t properly assessed. John said that she spiralled ‘extremely quickly… into a serious state of depression’. Suzanne was admitted to hospital via her GP. John felt as if he acted as her main carer during the first few days she was in hospital as the staff didn’t interact with her much at first. Suzanne was prescribed olanzapine and diazepam, but wasn’t getting any better. John felt that she might die as she was no longer eating or drinking. He was told that the medication wasn’t going to work fast enough to make any difference and that her doctors were going to recommend ECT. John was not named as a carer or next of kin, and therefore had no legal power to consent or otherwise to the treatment. Suzanne’s parents were not resident in the UK so John felt helpless. He researched ECT on the internet and was quickly drawn to the horror stories. John felt that the decision for her to have ECT happened very quickly and that in the back of his mind, he worried that the treatment wasn’t based on exact science and that nobody knew how ECT actually worked. When she had ECT, Suzanne can only remember that towards the end of the treatment, someone in the theatre said to her that she should know what to expect as she’d had the treatment before, but that she couldn’t remember the previous treatments. John thinks that after the third treatment Suzanne started to eat again and then subsequently made a very rapid recovery. For both of them, this period of time is a bit of a blur. Suzanne finds it difficult to remember this period, and John thinks she now has a poor short-term memory. Suzanne does not think she struggles with her short term memory.  

Suzanne read up about ECT some time later and felt she didn’t experience any of the negative side effects such as personality change or loss of creativity that others wrote about. Now John feels that she asks for help much more quickly when she needs it. Suzanne continues to take medication, and feels that things like reflexology and healing has really helped her well-being. In addition, she meditates, gets plenty of sleep and writes a diary. She has experienced a few ‘blips’ since then, but nothing as serious. John wished he had had access to more balanced information about people’s experiences of ECT to help him at the time.


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