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Goodness Me is your source for useful health, wellness and lifestyle information. We cover an interesting and comprehensive range of topics, tapping into the knowledge and expertise of staff and doctors at Epworth HealthCare, the leading private not-for-profit hospital group in Victoria, Australia.

Electroconvulsive therapy - it's not what you think

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Electroconvulsive therapy - it's not what you think

Epworth HealthCare

Mental illness is very common. One in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness every year. The most common causes are depression, anxiety and substance abuse or a combination of all three.

One successful treatment that’s available for people is electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. This therapy is reserved for people with severe depressive disorders who are very unwell and have not responded to other treatments. And it’s also widely misunderstood by the general public, clouded in myths.

When a patient has an ECT they are lightly anaesthetised. The patient is asleep during the electrical stimulation. This stimulation does induce a seizure which lasts for 20-30 seconds and then the patient spontaneously wakes up. A patient receives one electrical stimulation per session.

Treatment plans vary patient to patient and depend on their particular circumstances. But typically a patient may receive eight to nine treatments with an average of three per week. There is no limit to the number of ECT treatments a patient can have.

As Dr Graham Wong of Epworth Clinic states, “The technology and overall approach to ECT has dramatically progressed over the years. Unfortunately One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest gave what is a highly successful treatment option for depression, a bad name.”  

There are a number of myths around ECT. The facts are a long way from many peoples’ perceptions.

  • The patient isn’t awake during treatment
  • The treatment is not painful as the patient is anaesthetised and they also take a muscle relaxant prior
  • No medically recognised links to dementia
  • There are no changes to a patients personality following treatment
  • ECT does not cause any long term memory loss

Dr Wong confirmed “That while there may be some patchy short term memory loss following treatment, it’s not long standing. In fact, often cognitive thinking can improve as depression deteriorates a patients thinking capabilities. The other good news is there is an 80-90% success rate and psychiatrists believe it is the most effective treatment for severe depression.”

ECT can only be administered by a specialised and trained psychiatrist. Epworth HealthCare has a dedicated ECT team at their mental health clinic in Camberwell.

While severe depression requires clinical treatment, Dr Wong believes there are some common practices that everyone can use to maintain positive mental health:

  • Maintain a good diet
  • Get regular exercise
  • Conduct basic stress management
  • Maintain strong, supportive and healthy relationships with friends and family
  • Ask people for help