Shock therapy sees mixed results

The Launceston General Hospital's electro-convulsive therapy machine. Picture: Mark Jesser

The Launceston General Hospital's electro-convulsive therapy machine. Picture: Mark Jesser

The stuff of nightmares or a saving grace - understanding electric shock treatment, with ISABEL BIRD.

KAREN doesn't like to remember the times she received electric shock treatment.

She was 23, severely depressed, and had been medicated with different drugs that all failed to help when her then psychiatrist suggested giving her electric shock.

"I hadn't heard about it before but thought what a barbaric and bizarre treatment," Karen said.

"But because I was unresponsive to any medication it was my last hope."

In her first session in 1983, conducted at the psychiatrist's office in Launceston, Karen said she was full of fear.

"He came in and was holding this little black box and I was told by the nurse to bite down on a mouth guard to stop me from biting my tongue.

"I was then told that they were going to move the bed away from the wall and I thought why are they doing that?"

"I can remember asking `How did I get to work this morning? Did I even go to work?' The confusion probably wore off like a general anaesthetic would - the next day I would be unwell but I managed to go to work."

Electro convulsive therapy, as it is now known, uses electric voltage that is applied to a person's brain through electrodes attached to the skull.

The volts cause a fit that causes changes in blood flow and in the brain's chemical reactions.

This is then believed to elicit an antidepressant response.

Department of Health chief psychiatrist Len Lambeth said the treatment is reasonably common, widely accepted by psychiatrists, and is shown by studies to have a 95 per cent success rate.

He said between six to 10 patients would receive ECT weekly in his previous workplaces in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales.

"It is not like in the old days when you had to observe the patients having what looked like an epileptic fit," he said.

"We have very small electrodes which attach to the skull and we can actually see the electrical activity of the skull (with EEG data) and we can see that the patient has had an adequate fit, even though we haven't been able to observe shaking of the limbs.

"It is not high risk, particularly these days, because it is always given in the presence of two doctors, a psychiatrist and an anaesthetist. The treatment only takes a matter of seconds and if they have had a successful treatment they are woken up, and will usually have a cup of tea and a sandwich."

Karen said she was driven home after her treatment and returned to work in her administration job the next day.

"Dad used to drive me home and I would have this massive headache and total confusion," she said.

"I can remember asking `How did I get to work this morning? Did I even go to work?' The confusion probably wore off like a general anaesthetic would - the next day I would be unwell but I managed to go to work."

ECT didn't work for Karen.

Launceston man David Daley has undergone electro-convulsive therapy three times. Picture: Mark Jesser

Launceston man David Daley has undergone electro-convulsive therapy three times. Picture: Mark Jesser

She was given a total of 12 ECTs over a four-week period in 1983.

The same psychiatrist gave her a second round of 12 treatments nine years later, taking her to a total of 24 treatments in her lifetime.

Karen has had bouts of severe depression, which followed an undiagnosed anxiety condition experienced as a child.

"I had obsessive compulsive disorder, which is a behaviour that comes from anxiety. I would get halfway up the road to home and then all of a sudden my mind told me I had to go back to school to my locker, to realign my books in a pattern. I would be going back and forth, back and forth, and I would be so late home.

"I could never tell my mother that I had this obsession, that I had to check light switches or do things in sequence. I was only 12 years old."

Karen said when the second round of ECT did not successfully treat her depression, her psychiatrist made a shocking suggestion for treatment.

"When I had the second series of 12 (the psychiatrist) then went on to suggest a lobotomy, to sever a nerve in my brain that would stop me from feeling any more pain to feel nothing," she said.

"Alarm bells went off and I didn't see him any more."

Karen attributes her inability to remember and retain numbers to the ECT.

"I make a point of writing numbers down. I have to write a lot of stuff down or I will forget it.

"Someone I know is adamant that ECT is the cause of memory (fatigue). When they read a book they say they can't concentrate and have to read pages all over again to get the information to stay in their head. It definitely has a long-term effect on your memory."

Despite feeling negativity and distress about her own experiences with ECT, Karen, who believes she was a "guinea pig" for her psychiatrist, said she was not against today's strictly controlled procedures if it helped people through their mental illness.

"Depression is a terrible, debilitating, insidious illness and I wouldn't wish it on anyone but knowing that the ECT has worked for some people - that is good," she said.

Launceston man David Daley has undergone electro-convulsive therapy three times. Picture: Mark Jesser

Launceston man David Daley has undergone electro-convulsive therapy three times. Picture: Mark Jesser

Launceston resident David Daly, 55, who has schizophrenia, said he requested ECT earlier this year after having received the treatment a number of times in his life.

He was first involuntarily given two sessions of ECT at the Lindsay Miller Clinic in 1977.

Mr Daly's father had taken him to the clinic after David "suddenly changed".

"I wasn't asked whether I wanted it they just gave it to me," Mr Daly said.

"I liked it in the end. Just after the treatments I felt clear in my mind, and brighter, like it had cleared all the cob- webs out. That lasted for a few days."

Mr Daly received ECT voluntarily a third time in Launceston this year.

"I have seen it do wondrous things for other people - it really changed people from bad to good," he said.

"They were in a really bad state, really depressed and really down. Then they had the treatment and it was like it had cured them.

"I can't see any harm in it if it helps people. I've had it myself and I'm not scared to have it again."

•Beyond Blue offers support and assistance in the day and night. Call: 1300 22 4636

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