Electroconvulsive Therapy or ECT was discovered during the 19th century and became a certified scientific therapy method for mental disorders, only in the third decade of the 20th century. Used on a large scale after the Second World War, electric shock therapy for medical use decreased because of public campaigns directed against it. During the last three decades, ECT was thoroughly refined as a treatment method: the intensity, voltage, frequency of the electrical discharges were adapted to suit different mental distresses; the power sources were modified in order to provide variable currents; artificial breathing was added in order to better oxygenate the brain during seizure periods; and muscle relaxants were introduced to avoid bone or muscular tissue ruptures during convulsions. ECT has known a revitalization.
Psychiatrists have established electric shock therapy to be effective in mental diseases having to do mainly with affective disorders, i.e. depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, mental states which affect the lives of millions of people worldwide. One of the first uses was ECT treatment for depression.
The first psychiatrists to use electroshocks did it for epilepsy treatment. They noticed significant improvements in their patient’s mood. As epileptics usually become melancholic consequently after their seizures (depression is a state of melancholy), but after having their brains stimulated with electric shocks, they display less worry of their condition, or they become more indifferent to it.
Even now, nobody knows for certain the mechanism that makes ECT effective. Neurologists presume is it a matter of neurotransmitter improvement and better nerve cell functioning. Researches led to the conclusion that mentally ill people’s brains (especially with depressive patients) work at a slower rate than those of mentally healthy people.
Neurotransmitters are a set of chemicals released by brain cells when sending messages to each other. Flowing electric currents through the head (electrodes are usually positioned on the temples in opposite sides of the skull) improve the quality of neurotransmitters and so the communication among the cells improves, too. As a mental activity result, patients become, at the end of the therapy, more active and yet calm.
Modern day medicine tends to use medication to treat depressions. There are however different situations and there are patients whose conditions do not permit drugs. In these cases, ECT is considered the only alternative solution.
Despite a long period of uncertainty, ECT had its techniques improved for more accurate results, and several precautions were added that made it safer for the patient. This is why ECT is now considered a viable variant to medication, and some solid arguments in its favor are that electroconvulsive therapy is not addictive, the patient is not dependent on his daily dose, and recurrences only take – in most cases – two sessions of therapy in a year.
As stated before, depression is a psychological problem characterized by melancholic mood: the person feels hopeless, worthless, helpless, or guilty. The social interest decreases, as well as general energy and sexual desire. The person also feels tired, sleepy, burned out and loses their sense of well-being and cannot consciously emote positive feelings. Anyone can get very tired from work or hyperactivity, or discouraged when something goes seriously wrong; but these feelings fade out in a matter of days. In depressive patients, once began and not treated – depression deepens, intensifies and begins to influence the performance in simple daily activities and causes the deterioration of family relationships and other social connections. Where antidepressants have no effect over severe cases, electroconvulsive therapy for depression is looked at as an alternative treatment method.
Bipolar disorder is another mental problem, given a higher degree of gravity. The person who suffers from this disorder displays not only deep depression, but also periods of hyperactivity, known as maniacal episodes. During these periods, they become euphoric and agitated, and sometimes cannot sleep. During the depression periods, the symptoms are sadness, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness and lack of energy. The alternation of the two opposed states may become more frequent, and the extreme states may become more acute. This sometimes causes the patient to feel their personality coming apart. The ability to adapt to different situation completely breaks down and the social behavior no longer conforms to the norm. Although in recent decades, ECT treatment for bipolar people was not the custom and antidepressants were widely used instead, there are many instances when electroconvulsive therapy for bipolar disorder becomes a viable, and sometimes the only solution.
One of the most severe mental disorders is schizophrenia. The persons who suffer of this distress display two major symptoms: thought altering delusions and perception altering hallucinations. Delusions are defined as wrong beliefs coming from misinterpreting reality, while hallucinations are misinterpretations of sensory stimuli, translated into visual or aural false perceptions (seeing or hearing things).
In fact, electroconvulsive therapy for schizophrenia was the first and the longest accepted cure for this mental disorder. Drugs are of most valuable help in the cure of schizophrenia, but in some cases such as allergies, ineffectiveness, or when patients are not recommended to take antidepressants, ECT treatment for schizophrenia still remains the only option.