A debate of the kind I’d like to see in a US newspaper is unfolding in the Irish Times. This debate revolves around the issue electro-convulsive shock therapy, and in particular shock treatments given involuntarily or without patient consent.
Three articles have appeared on the subject in that newspaper in fact. The first is called A shock to the system of care, and it deals with the issue in some detail.
Rightly or wrongly, no other treatment arouses as much fear as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Depending on who you talk to, ECT is an effective and fast-acting treatment for severe depressive disorders, or it is a potentially dangerous procedure unsupported by research and whose side effects include long-term memory loss.
The debate in Ireland focuses on a section of the Mental Health Act that allows for involuntary shock, activists and advocates in that country want to see this section removed from the law.
John McCarthy, a mental health campaigner and founder of the Mad Pride Ireland group, is among those leading the charge for change.
Along with other mental health campaigners he has set up a website (www.delete59b.com) to remove section 59(b) from the Mental Health Act. This allows for the use of the procedure where patients are “unable or unwilling to give such consent”.
I am thinking of a lady, aged 72 years, who had lost her husband and two years later was still lost in her grief. Her will to live had completely disappeared and every day she woke feeling that she was utterly unworthy of her life, that she did not deserve to be fed or cared for, and that she should be simply allowed to die.
A bereavement counselor had worked with this woman for the better part of a year before this electroshock procedure was tried.
But when I saw her literally “awaken” after the six ECT procedures and regain her natural exuberance, I had to acknowledge the benefit of this intervention to her. She graduated from our service and remained well.
At 72 years, this lady might not have had that much time left either, or so my thinking ran. Could this doctor possibly have come up with a better example?
The patient, Colette Ni Dhuinneacha, was a different matter.
I was 19 the first time I was detained in a psychiatric hospital. I escaped after six months. I literally hopped over the wall and got on a bus. I was detained involuntarily. It’s a terrible thing to happen. All your rights are taken away.
Then she talks about her experience with ECT.
I wish I could tell you in detail about the first time I had ECT, but I have no memory of it. To be honest, I remember very little about my childhood. I have only a couple of memories. I feel that I have been robbed of so much of the richness of life. I hear my sister recalling things that happened, but I can’t remember any of it.
Memory loss speaks for itself, it can be one of the lasting effects of shock treatment, and it is caused by brain damage. Further she states.
I feel very strongly that forced ECT should be outlawed. I would like to see it outlawed in all circumstances – it has no place in a civilised world. I don’t agree with this argument that people who are ill have not the capacity to decide what is best for themselves.
I remember speaking with a university student in Virginia who seemed to think electro-convulsive shock therapy had gone the way of the dodo bird. I had to explain to her that people are still being harmed by electro-shock treatments.
With a debate like this one raging in a major US newspaper, maybe we could get a few more concerned citizens to come forward and help us end this barbaric and devastating practice, especially in so far as involuntary shock is concerned.