Warning: ECT is a controversial subject and views on the practice are divided. The law governing the use of ECT is very strict in the UK and it is used infrequently, but can be very effective for some people who have not responded to other treatments. This blog contains content that some readers may find upsetting.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is still widely practised. Both clinicians and many who have experienced ECT see it as a rapid and effective treatment for severe episodes of bipolar disorder. For many people, the idea of ECT evokes fear or simply unanswered questions. Commonly known as ‘electric shock treatment’, some consider it to be inhumane and worry it leaves permanent damage to cognitive abilities.  

I was 20 when I underwent ECT for the first time. I had been very unwell for almost a year, experiencing what I now know was a ‘mixed episode’ of bipolar, but diagnosed then as ‘atypical depression’. The dominant symptom was a racing mind – spinning so fast and so uncontrollably that it draws you in, separates you from the world and other people and feels overwhelming and intolerable. Suddenly and briefly, the boundless energy brings you towards near-ecstatic exhilaration. Strongest and most dangerous of all was an obsessive and irresistible torrent of suicidal thoughts. These thoughts were dangerous, and ideation came very close to fulfilment.

In and out of hospital, sleeping pills and tranquilisers brought short periods of relative relief – medication made no difference. I felt I was far past the point where psychological therapy could help. Things worsened and there seemed no viable solution. A psychiatrist suggested ECT and for me it really was a ‘miracle-cure’. 

Small electric currents are passed through the brain inducing a brief seizure. The muscle relaxant prevents any major bodily response.  You drift off to sleep and you wake to find yourself in the recovery area. After 5 treatments, I woke to find the extremities of speed, fear and suicidal thoughts had lifted. 

After this, came a period of recovery. Mild symptoms generally remained, and it took a while to restabilise mood and sleep, through a combination of self-management techniques, medication and psychological approaches, such as CBT.

I remained well for many years but there have been relapses sparked by miscarriages and pregnancies. Despite receiving a firm bipolar diagnosis, gaining an understanding of the condition, my severe episodes have remained both resistant to medication and extremely dangerous. 

I have now had many successful courses of treatment. In addition ECT has successfully treated a mixed and psychotic episode during the final trimester of my pregnancy. My baby was safely delivered a month later and is now a happy and healthy three-year-old, looking forward to starting school. 

I have experienced a small degree of lasting memory loss – generally elements of whole or partial amnesia surrounding the time when bi-weekly treatment took place. However, ECT has had no long-term effects on my cognitive faculties or abilities to build new memories. As an academic, these skills are central to my work and I have managed to continue successfully with my career. Help from family, friends, photos and old emails etc. help. It can be a challenge – but this seems to be a small price to pay for something that has, essentially, saved my life.  

You may also be interested in:

ECT: answer or anathema 

Treatment for resistant bipolar depression 

Becoming a parent with bipolar