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ECT is a treatment which involves passing a carefully controlled electrical current through the brain. The current affects the brain’s electrical activity in a way which can lessen depressive and psychotic symptoms.
ECT is used as a treatment for severe depression, bipolar disorder and psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia.
ECT is used for the fast treatment of severe depression, mania or psychosis. It may be used when symptoms are severe, when a situation is life-threatening, or when other forms of treatment have been ineffective.
ECT is administered in a hospital, usually by the treating psychiatrist and an anaesthetist. The person being treated is given a general anaesthetic and a muscle relaxant, so is unconscious during the treatment.
Electrodes are placed on one (unilateral) or both (bilateral) sides of the scalp and a small electric current is passed between these until a brief generalised seizure occurs. The person does not feel anything due to the anaesthetic, and does not convulse due to the muscle relaxant.
The person wakes up after five or ten minutes of treatment. They may feel groggy at first, but will be clear-headed within 30 minutes.
Treatment is typically repeated a number of times. While most people show some improvement after 3 to 4 sessions, some may need 20 to 25. Treatments are usually given 2 to 3 times a week.
Despite the controversial history of ECT, there is now a clear body of scientific evidence that ECT is effective in improving depressive and psychotic symptoms in the short term.
To make the return of symptoms less likely, doctors may prescribe medication and psychotherapy. Some people may require several courses of the treatment over their lifetime.
Despite its controversial history, the risks and side effects of modern ECT are very low.
Like any procedure involving anaesthesia, ECT carries a small degree of risk. The most common side effects are headache, stomach upsets, aching muscles and short-term memory loss.
Studies have shown that ECT does not harm the brain or change its anatomy in any way, as the strength of the electrical current is too low to cause damage.
Your GP, psychiatrist or mental health professional will be able to give you advice on ECT as a treatment option. If your psychiatrist has recommended ECT but you aren’t sure about it, you can get a second opinion from another mental health professional.
The Epworth Hospital in Melbourne has a helpful factsheet about the ECT treatment process.
The NSW Mental Health Review Tribunal provides information about ECT and consent.