Electroconvulsive Treatment

Tania

Female
Age at interview: 41

Brief outline: Tania first became unwell at university and years later was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder. She has had various ECT treatments over the years with varied results, but now considers ECT - if performed correctly - to be a life saving.

Background: Tania is a lecturer, and lives with her husband and daughter. She describes her ethnic background as White British.

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Tania had a great first year at university; but, in retrospect, she had ‘a bit too much energy’ and wasn’t sleeping much. The following summer one of her best friends was killed in a car crash and she reacted in a way that she felt was not in proportion to the event. When she returned to university, she felt completely detached from everything around her. She felt like ‘everything was spinning around’. However, outwardly she was able to behave quite normally. Eventually she was admitted to hospital when the symptoms worsened to the point where she felt uncontrollably suicidal. Looking back, she now knows that she had bipolar disorder, but she says it took years to diagnose. 

Tania had never heard of ECT before when a doctor she was seeing privately first suggested it. She describes the consultant as angry because it looked bad on him that she had tried to commit suicide, and he threatened her to consent to ECT or she would be sectioned. Tania says she felt compelled to sign the consent form. She only had one ECT treatment and then it was stopped, although she doesn’t know why. She then went into hospital under the care of another psychiatrist after it was recommended by a family friend. She was given more information and it was made clear she had a choice in terms of her treatment. This time, she had 7-8 ECT sessions and felt that ‘the whole thing lifted’ and she noticed a big improvement. She felt slightly confused after each treatment, but this effect wasn’t long lasting.

Afterwards this initial improvement, Tania says it took her some time to make a full recovery. She had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helped. She completed her final year at university and felt supported by her department to continue her studies. After university, she completed a Masters, a Ph.D. and subsequently got a job as a lecturer. She felt that ECT didn’t have any lasting cognitive effect and that it helped her get over acute symptoms. Tania has learnt to try to contain her energy levels and does meditation to help slow her thoughts.

Tania got married and had a daughter, but then two years later, she had a miscarriage. She realised in retrospect that she had probably been quite high for two years. After her miscarriage she became unwell very quickly and became suicidal. She was admitted to a private hospital where she was prescribed tranquillizers and antipsychotics. She thinks this medication affected her seizure threshold and made the ECT she received during this admission ineffective (although she still had over 20 treatments). Tania now thinks that it is advisable that ECT should be performed inside the NHS with the accompanying rigorous safe guards. Tania blames her bad experiences of the ECT on the private hospital where she received the treatment, rather than on the treatment itself. 

Tania had another episode and “got through it”, half sedated on drugs. She came off the drugs and became manic and had “mixed episodes” where she felt both suicidal and manic. Around this time she believed that it was inevitable she was going to die, because what she was experiencing was so intense. 

Eventually she tried ECT again and speaks very highly of the hospital that administered it. Tania says the staff treated her with such kindness and dignity that it changed her whole perspective on ECT. On the six or seventh treatment the whole thing lifted again. Since that episode, when she had flu, her mental health went downhill but each time ECT would work “like magic”. She researched ‘maintenance’ ECT and received this for just over a year, with the frequencies of the treatments gradually decreasing. 

Now she mainly lives symptom free and has not had any treatment for a year, although she has experienced minimal bad reactions to physical illnesses and antibiotics. Although having anaesthetic once every four or five weeks wasn't pleasant, she now feels like the person she was before. Following the maintenance ECT, she feels like she has returned, can be a good mum to her daughter and has some stability. She still has to work hard at maintaining her health but feels that her cognitive abilities are unaffected, as shown by her successful return to academic work.

Now Tania has an advance treatment order in place to enable her to have ECT. Tania says that the success rates of ECT are impressive and although it was badly used in the past, if people follow the guidelines, then it could help people.

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