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The Shocking Truth About ECT

ECT continues to be misrepresented in the media, despite the best of intentions.

Several months ago, a major news organization interviewed me for a front-page article about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I was thrilled to assist with this article, and a friend of mine who is a professional in the field participated as well.

Unfortunately, when published, the reporter presented our information accurately but combined it with misinformation provided by so-called experts and disproportionate negative examples of the treatment.

This is the sad history of ECT. The scary minority examples are far more enticing to publish than a balanced article about the risks and benefits associated with a life-saving treatment. I protested the article, and the paper invited me to write an article about ECT.

After I wrote it (and rewrote it according to their specifications) they decided there was not enough space to print my article. The editor encouraged me to “shop” my article to other news agencies.

Those of you who know me well know that I’m not a shopper of things or of my work. My schedule is full. (The Hersh Foundation will be announcing an exciting partnership with University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in May; stay tuned.) Writing for a buck isn’t what I do.

So, here is the article I wrote. Please post and forward it so that people might obtain some balanced information about ECT. Thank you for your support.

The Shocking Truth About “Shock Therapy”

“Shock therapy? They still do that?” These questions repeat so often, my eyes start to roll. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) saved my life. The rampant misinformation about this procedure compels me to offer my story as evidence of what ECT can do.

People call me about ECT, wanting a real person’s take as opposed to a professional’s. They’ve seen movies or testimonials about brain damage, electricity, and high relapse rates.

Julie K. Hersh
Dr. Ahmad Raza speaks at an event for ETC education
Source: Julie K. Hersh

A vocal minority despises ECT. As the recent measles outbreak has shown, an isolated negative experience can hinder the logical use of medicine.

For those who are profoundly depressed, the medical community often cites ECT as the gold standard, with a high remission of symptoms, far better than antidepressants alone. Some argue that ECT only works temporarily, the high relapse rate invalidating the procedure. Sackeim et. al. reported in the Journal of American Medical Association in 2001 that 61% of the patients treated with a combination of medication and ECT were in remission at 6 months.

While a 39 percent relapse rate is not optimal, researchers like Dr. Ahmad Raza at UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) work diligently to improve these numbers.

Mental illness, like heart disease, is a chronic condition, often aggravated by unhealthy lifestyle choices. Sleep, exercise, nutrition, psychotherapy, social support groups, stress management, and often medication play a critical role in maintaining health after ECT. Without continued attention to self-care, relapse happens.

Do we eliminate heart surgery because some have a second heart attack? No. Health does not come with a lifetime guarantee. As with any major medical procedure, patients must compare risks to benefits, then decide if the upside outweighs the risks.

Julie K. Hersh
ConnECT group films a piece about their experience with ECT.
Source: Julie K. Hersh

Some who consider ECT worry about memory loss. Members of our local Dallas ECT support group, ConnECT, report some short-term memory issues around the time that ECT was administered, but no lasting issues. I encourage anyone having memory issues associated with ECT to get a second opinion from a research institution like UTSW. When ECT is properly administered, brain damage does not occur. In fact, research has shown that ECT increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates brain cell growth.

Most ECT success stories never hit the news. Understandably, people benefiting from ECT want normalcy without the label of mental illness. ECT is often used in critical situations in an effort to avoid suicide. I know from personal experience. After three suicide attempts, ECT provided a quick and clear path out of my depression.

Our ConnECT group boasts many positive experiences with ECT. One member recounted that during Thanksgiving 2013, he was in a locked psychiatric ward eating an anemic slab of turkey.

This year, he celebrated with his family. Another group member survived a horrific suicide attempt, and with ECT, has completely rebounded to care for her three young children. These are people who found ECT worth the risk, and their lives have flourished with good medical treatment and continued care.

Julie K. Hersh
Julie with, from left, Dr. Ahmad Raza, Dr. Shawn McClintock and Dr. Mustafa Husain.
Source: Julie K. Hersh

Annually in the United States, approximately 38,500 people die by suicide. 40,000 die from breast cancer. With ECT, I’ve defied suicide, living 14 lucky years beyond my attempts of 2001. I believe and hope that one day, mental illness will be discussed with the same rationality as breast cancer or heart disease.

Until then, I’ll answer the persistent questions. Sharing my experience is a small way to thank the professionals who saved my life.

For more information about me or Struck by Living, check out the Struck by Living website.

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