Helpline 1800 18 7263

ECT - Electroconvulsive Therapy

Email a Friend Share on Twitter Share on Facebook
  • Factsheet
  • Print

What is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)?

ECT is a form of medical treatment for severe depression, bipolar disorder, and psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia.

It may be recommended when symptoms are severe or other forms of treatment are ineffective. A carefully-controlled electrical current is passed through the brain, affecting the brain’s electrical activity and producing an improvement in depressive and psychotic symptoms.

When is ECT prescribed?

For some people, other forms of treatment such as medication and counselling have little or no effect on the symptoms of depression or psychosis. This is particularly concerning where symptoms are causing severe distress and the person may even be suicidal. In these cases, ECT seems to be especially helpful, with over 80% of people with depression who receive it reporting an improvement.

How is ECT given?

A general anaesthetic is given first, and then a small electric current is passed between two electrodes placed on the scalp.

On waking, the person will have no memory of what followed administration of the anaesthetic. Treatment is typically repeated a number of times and while most people show some improvement after 3 to 4 sessions, occasionally some may need 20 to 25. Treatments are usually given 2 to 3 times a week.

How does ECT work?

The brain works through complex electrical and chemical processes. These are affected by mental illnesses, so that they don’t work properly. Like medication, ECT works on these processes so that they operate more normally again and symptoms are reduced.

Is there evidence that ECT works?

There is now a clear body of scientific evidence that ECT is effective in improving depressive and psychotic symptoms. To make the return of symptoms less likely, medication is usually given towards the end of the course of treatments; counselling and rehabilitation should also be provided.

Is it safe? What about side-effects?

ECT is regarded as a very safe treatment, with no evidence of long-term damage to brain functions, such as reasoning and creativity for example. It is always performed under the direct supervision of a psychiatrist and an anaesthetist and nurses also assist.

A common and significant side-effect, however, is memory impairment. Many people report difficulty with memory lasting for some weeks after treatment. However, this effect is generally mild and improves with time. It is important that the treating doctor clearly and frankly explains these negative as well as positive effects with the person before treatment begins. Full information about treatment with ECT and legal rights should always be provided and written consent is usually required.

How do I find out more?

It is important to ask your doctor about any concerns you have.

SANE Australia also produces a range of easy-to-read publications and multimedia resources on mental illness and related issues, including:

Living with mental illness

The SANE Guide to Medication and other Treatments explains how treatments for mental illness work, including clinical care, support in the community and helping yourself.

SANE's Schizophrenia DVD Kit features people who've experienced mental illness, and their carers, talking about what has helped them. The SANE Guide to Schizophrenia and other Psychotic Illness is included.

The Antipsychotic medication pamphlet is an easy-to-read flyer that answers common questions about antipsychotic medication. It looks at how they help, how they work, how long they take to work, side effects and what antipsychotic medications are available.

ECT - Electroconvulsive Therapy Resources

Please click on one of the links below to access resources related to this topic.

Factsheet & Guide

Help us keep these resources free

These resources are available to you for free but if you can make a contribution - small or large - to help make these materials available to other people, it would be a big help!

ECT podcast

Get the facts about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

From SANE Forums
— Therapies

  • -
    Here is an article about a psychoanalyst
  • -
    Why after seeing my Psychologist after 2 years is si really would not go back he...
  • -
    HiI'm feeling a bit lost without a proper diagnosis and trialling endless meds. ...

SANE Website Survey

Please help us improve this service by taking our website survey. Your thoughts and feedback will be anonymous and will very much assist us in continually improving the SANE website.

'Take the Survey Now' button opens the survey in the same window. 'Take the Survey Later’ button opens in a new browser tab, which you can access at any time.

Take the survey now Take the survey later

Skip this survey