Electroconvulsive therapy doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in the public eye. If you’ve seen Requiem for a Dream or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s likely that whenever you think about them, the first scenes that come to mind are the most disturbing ones; the ones that portray Sara Goldfarb or McMurphy convulsing while those alien-looking headphone things were being pressed against their temples. Most commonly known as “electroshock therapy,” it seems as though most people like to think of ECT as an excused torture session. A sort of punishment for when the mentally ill misbehave. Well, the truth is that, for a while, that’s exactly what it was. Mental asylums of yesteryear would intentionally misuse the treatment, giving dangerous and painful doses of electricity to the patients; Hence the scenes from the two movies, both of which were based on books written around the time this procedure was commonplace.

It’s not all doom and gloom (anymore)

However, one thing that needs to be kept in mind is that keyword: “misused.” It seems as though when used properly, electroconvulsive therapy can actually be an effective means of treating certain psychological disorders. In fact, the practice is much more safe and commonplace today than you’d think. It exists mainly as a treatment for treatment-resistant depression. Essentially, if you’re not responding to medication and the therapy doesn’t seem to be working all that much, you can opt to have your brain fried with electricity as a last resort. For about half of the patients that do this, it results in a mood boost within a few days. But perhaps the scariest part is that we still have no idea exactly how it works: it just does.

Luckily, with the invention of anesthetics, the process doesn’t have to be nearly as torturous as what we see depicted in the movies.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “But what about the other half of people that don’t see results like that?” Well, rest assured that they aren’t permanently disfigured or anything like that… at least, most of them aren’t. Sue Cunliffe, a woman who had undergone the therapy before, reported symptoms as bad as slurred speech, major memory problems, and executive dysfunction that lasted long enough for her to be fired from her job. She recently contributed to a debate about the use of ECT in a legitimate medical sense: a concept that she was, of course, understandably against. Reactions like these are few and far between, but it’s still not understood exactly who this will happen to. Of course, patients are informed of this before they begin the treatment, but Cunliffe’s argument doesn’t just pertain to the possibly unethical nature of the practice: she aims to prove that the treatment doesn’t work at all.

So, does ECT actually work?

Sue Cunliffe argues that, even though the treatment may treat depression in some capacity, the gains are only temporary. They last for a short period of time before fizzling out, leaving you just as depressed as when you went in. Coupled with the treatment’s possible side effects and the 50/50 chance of it not doing anything in the first place, she argues that the treatment should be discontinued as genuine medical practice. However, she may have trouble disproving the research behind ECT: though it is not entirely conclusive, it can certainly be said that the correlations it provides lead one to believe that ECT could actually be helping. For instance, the data suggests that ECT raises brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels and that it could produce the same effect on serotonin receptors as antidepressant medications. Who would’ve thought that zapping your head to induce a controlled seizure could actually be a good thing.

Though there may be risks involved with the practice, electroconvulsive therapy may do more good than harm. For a select group of depressed and/or suicidal individuals who have taken every other road to wellness only to find a dead end, it could be one last avenue to explore. It is also proven that ECT works much faster than antidepressant SSRI medications, so for suicidal people, it may be a necessity rather than “just another option.” In fact, ECT is the preferred method of treatment in several places overseas; whether that be because they are uninformed of better treatments or because they find that it works better, it is unclear. Regardless, it seems as though enough people are practicing electroconvulsive therapy to suggest that it is, perhaps, a reliable form of treatment. Really, what it comes down to for patients is weighing the potential pros and cons before making their decision, just like with any other form of treatment.

Definitely not as bad as it seems

Half of the people who undergo ECT report that it was successful Not to mention, it works much faster than any other form of treatment, and it’s relatively safe. Though there is evidence to suggest that it may be a very temporary solution, it can be argued that a temporary solution is certainly better than no solution at all. Whatever side effects the procedure could produce, though there is a very slim chance they could be long-lasting, are never permanent. 

One thing’s for sure: shock therapy is definitely not like what you see in the movies (anymore, that is). With the use of anesthetic and much lower, controlled amounts of electricity, it’s now much more safe and comfortable. As controversial as it may be, it still remains the only option for some people, and the decision of whether or not it is used should lie solely in their hands.