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ECT must be outlawed — now

If you arrived at A&E with the same symptoms as ECT produces, you'd be rushed to Intensive Care. Why does this barbaric practice, masquerading as ‘treatment', continue in use? Michael Corry says it should be outlawed


Mary, a 66-year-old woman, was one of 859 patients who in 2003 received Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in this country. Two years later, she has trouble remembering how many shock treatments she received, can't remember what time of year she was in hospital, or how many weeks she spent there. "It's all a blur". One thing Mary is certain of is that her memory is greatly diminished: "I feel as if I'm suffering from dementia. I can't remember things, and I keep losing the thread of conversations and I'm always forgetting where I left things. I have to look at old photographs to remind myself of the life I had".

Mary is a retired school teacher whose husband was killed in a road traffic accident in 2002. Her grief was overwhelming, and her adult children were so worried about her living alone that they advised her to sell her home in the country and move to an apartment in Dublin where she could be close to two of them. It did not work out. " I felt enclosed and trapped, I missed the open spaces, my garden and the familiar surroundings. It was like living in a coffin with the lid off". She became anxious and fearful and disliked going to the shops. She dreaded answering the phone. Everything now seemed pointless. Her admission to a private psychiatric hospital with depression was a speedy one.

After three months of hospitalisation and eight sessions of electroconvulsive therapy, she was discharged on three different kinds of medication; an antidepressant, an anti-psychotic and lithium, all of which she still takes. Mary now wants to come off this medication. "I feel numb, and my emotions are frozen. I can no longer feel joy or sadness, instead I feel nothing. If I stop the pills and can start feeling again, maybe it will compensate for my confusion and memory loss." Mary's story is not unusual for many survivors of ECT.

But what exactly is ECT? In many respects, it resembles a surgical procedure. An electrical current of between 70 and 400 volts is passed through the brain of the patient with the intention of producing a grand mal or major epileptic seizure. The voltage is typically as great as that found in the wall sockets in your home. If the current were not limited to the head, it could kill patients by inducing a cardiac arrest, the cause of death in electrocution.

Electrodes are placed over both temples. The electric shock is administered for as little as a fraction of a second to as long as several seconds. The electricity in ECT is so powerful it would burn the skin on the head where the electrodes are placed unless conductive electrode jelly was used. Because a shock-induced seizure is typically far more severe than those suffered during spontaneous epilepsy, in earlier times, unless the patient's body was paralysed by pharmacological agents, it would undergo muscle spasms sufficiently violent at times to crack vertebrae, break limb bones, and damage teeth. To avoid this, current practice involves sedation with a short-acting intravenous barbiturate, followed by muscle paralysis with a curare derivative, and artificial respiration with oxygen to compensate for the paralysis of the patient's breathing musculature.

The shocks create an electrical storm that obliterates the normal electrical patterns in the brain. They are administered in a series over a few weeks, in an average of six to ten sessions, to ensure the procedure ‘takes', that is, alters the electrical activity of the brain in such a way that the individual will not remember, at least for several months, the depression that they were experiencing before the shocks. I have seen a number of patients who have been administered over100 ECT sessions, and are no better as a result.

In essence, ECT is an electrical brain injury, typically producing a global mental dysfunction. Following it the individual is dazed, confused, and disoriented, and cannot remember or appreciate current problems. The changes one sees are consistent with any acute brain injury — a concussion, such as from a blow to the head from a hammer.


If a woman like Mary came to a hospital emergency room displaying the same symptoms as those produced by ECT, perhaps from an electrical accident in her kitchen, she would be treated as an acute medical emergency and might be placed on anticonvulsants. If she developed a headache, stiff neck, and nausea — a triad of symptoms typical of post-ECT patients — she would probably be admitted for observation to the intensive care unit.

The greater the brain damage, the more likely that certain memories and intellectual abilities will never return. Memory deficits, retrograde and anterograde (before and after the event), are among the most common early signs of traumatic brain damage, and are seen in virtually all cases of ECT. Events which follow an ECT session are forgotten completely, such as visitors calling, phone calls received, speaking with their psychiatrist, etc. Memories are foggy about details of personal history such as family weddings, graduations, and jobs. Since the mind is the place the memory calls home, such deficits are extremely anxiety-provoking and disorienting since one's very identity has been altered. Autopsy studies of animals and some of humans show that ECT causes severe cellular damage, including cell death.

Arguments put forward as to the benefits of ECT have to be examined with extreme caution, for several reasons.

  1. It is fundamentally traumatic in nature.
  2. Many of the patients are vulnerable and unable to speak up for themselves.
  3. It is administered to many involuntarily due to their having being committed to hospital against their will.
  4. Most controlled studies of efficacy in depression indicate that the treatment is no better than placebo.
  5. It perpetuates the illusion that depression is the result of a disease of the brain rather than an emotional response, as in Mary's case, to life events.

Why has there not been medical questioning of ECT as a procedure? There can only be one of two answers. Either the psychiatrists using it are misguided enough to believe still that the dubious benefits outweigh the well-established risks to their patients, or a cover-up is occurring in case, if brain damage to patients is acknowledged, law suits will follow.

ECT should be abandoned immediately, as it is no longer medically sustainable and is dehumanising for all concerned. The eminent American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote:

Electricity as a form of treatment is based on force and fraud and justified by ‘medical necessity'. The cost of this fictionalisation runs high. It requires the sacrifice of the patient as a person, and of the psychiatrist as a clinical thinker and moral agent.

More on Electro-shock


The scientific papers that
prove ECT is no good

To read or download the scientific papers which we are republishing as a contribution to the debate on ECT, please click on the year of publication. Most will open in an onscreen reader in 'magazine' format. Click the download button at top left to save a copy. You can also print or email the files from the onscreen reader.
In chronological order, there are five papers:

1. 1998: ECT — scientific, ethical, political issues
2. 2005: Patients' perspectives
3. 2006: Memory, cognitive effects
4. 2007: Assessment & treatment
5. 2007: The cognitive effects
And the Quotationary: 2006

None of these is an easy read. All are highly technical. For the general reader, we recommend in most cases close study of the Abstract and Conclusions. They alone testify both to the damage ECT causes and to the cover-up of this damage by the profession in Ireland. The files are in PDF form, so you will need Adobe Reader or some equivalent to open and read them.


Irish Times article says 'barbaric age' must end

You can read a hard-hitting piece by Dr Michael Corry which lays out all the medical arguments against the use of ECT in the Irish Times of 25 June 2008. For online IT readers, the piece is here. If you wish to read it or download it from our website, go here. The Sunday Independent reports our ECT campaign here and here, with some letters from readers here


Medication and ECT

Billions of psychoactive pills are prescribed — overprescribed — annually, and thousands of people are given powerful electric shocks to the brain. Just what does all this do, and why is it done?
Read more arrowback


Philip Barton takes aim
at Harold Sackeim

Here is Philip Barton's take on Dr Harold Sackeim, his recantation of support for ECT, and why he led the charge in favour of ECT for so long: Direct Hit arrowback


Download Michael Corry's The Final Solution

The Wellbeing Foundation has published a new pamphlet, The Final Solution, by Dr Michael Corry. It is available free as an e-book. To get your copy to read on-screen or print out, just click here arrowback

    You will need Adobe Reader to open the document. If you don't already have it, download it here


Shocking cover-up by the MHC prevents analysis

The Mental Health Commission fails to provide even the limited statistics its predecessor did. This amounts to a cover-up of abuse, says Michael Corry. More here


Wellbeing debates Irish College of Psychiatrists

Wellbeing Foundation spokesman Basil Miller went head to head with Consilia Walsh, chair of the Irish College of Psychiatrists, in the Irish Times on Monday 7 July 2008.
    Miller focused on the human rights deficiencies in Irish mental health legislation and demanded that the government support the Private Members Bill introduced by senators De Burca, Boyle and Norris, saying that it would set in place the absolute minimum standards of protection for the psychologically distressed set out by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations.
    Walsh defended ECT as a treatment, cherry-picking the evidence to support her case. She did not once mention the human and civil rights of those detained, nor the continued flouting of medical ethics by psychiatrists in the health services who impose invasive and dangerous therapies on 'their' patients against the will of the latter.
    Read the article here, or download all articles, news reports, comments and letters from that time which were published in the Irish Times: here


Corry talks to Pat Kenny

Michael Corry spoke to Pat Kenny on Friday 9 May 2008, on his radio show on RTE1. You can listen to that segment of the show here, or find it in the entire show, here