Friday, February 22, 2013

Shock Treatment: A Thing of the Past?

I thought electric shock therapy was a thing of the past, a bizarre—albeit effective, in some cases—treatment for severe depression and bipolar disorder, so I was surprised to find that there is a school in Canton, Massachusetts that still uses electric shock therapy, also called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). But this school does not use ECT to treat depression or bipolar disorder. Rather, it uses this treatment to address behavioral problems in kids and adults who have developmental disabilities.

Various types of electric therapy have been around as early as the 16th century, but ECT—the only form of shock therapy used in modern medicine—didn't become widespread in the UK and US until the 1940s and -50s. Today it is estimated that about 1 million people worldwide receive ECT every year, usually in a course of 6–12 treatments administered 2 or 3 times a week.

There is, of course, a lot of controversy regarding the effectiveness and validity of ECT. For one, reports of ECT's effectiveness are only documented in the short term. That is, the treatment may be effective, but only for one to six months, and research psychiatrist Colin A. Ross found that there was no single study that showed a significant difference between real and placebo ECT at one month post-treatment. Furthermore, most ECT research is done with the effectiveness of depression and bipolar disorder treatment, not behavioral problems among the developmentally disabled. So why is ECT being used in that setting?

As is turns out, parents have found ECT to be very helpful in treating their children. Last year, NBC New York published a story about Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, that school in Massachusetts that uses ECT on its students, and explained that while the facility gets a lot of negative feedback in response to its methods, many parents continue to show their support:

“In 2006, the parents of Samantha Shear told NBC New York they were desperate after their daughter couldn’t stop hurting herself by hitting herself in the eyes. The Shear family insists skin shock therapy was a last resort that improved their daughter’s life.
'The thought process is, “we need something severe enough to make this kid stop hurting herself,”' said Marcia Shear. 'And you know something, it worked.'”

However, many people find ECT to be an inhumane, torturous method of treatment. A video of Rotenberg released in 2002 shows a patient, Andre McCollins, tied to a mat, receiving more than 30 electric shocks, each lasting two seconds. In 2006, another student, Antwone Nicholson withdrew from the school after receiving similar treatment. Though she did sign consent forms, Antwone's mother, Evelyn Nicholson, claimed that the extent of the shocking and the potential for abuse were never disclosed.

Now Rotenberg is back in the spotlight. In a legal filing last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley moved to end a court order that has limited the state’s regulatory authority of the Rotenberg center since the 1980s. The state aims to get broader authority over the facility and insists that ECT is an unacceptable method of treatment for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Naturally, I hope the state wins. What do you think? Do you have any experience with electroconvulsive therapy?

1 comment:

  1. My bi-polar mother-in-law received it many times in various clinics. Her cognitive abilities remained somewhat impaired for the rest of her life. But she was not depressed.