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Call The Midwife: What is ECT?

Electroconvulsive therapy cropped up in series six but what is it? And how does it treat mental health conditions?

Published: Friday, 30th June 2017 at 10:00 am

We now know the fate of Call The Midwife’s Sister Cynthia, who was sent to the Linchmere Hospital while battling with depression.


The doctors and nurses at the mental health institution prescribed a course of ECT for the young nun, but what is it? And how is it used to treat mental health illnesses?

What is ECT?

ECT or Electroconvulsive Therapy, is a treatment that’s used to deal with the symptoms of a small variety of mental health problems.

The treatment sends an electric current through a patient’s brain in order to trigger an epileptic seizure, which is thought to relieve the symptoms of some mental health problems.

A patient is usually given a general anaesthetic and muscle relaxants before the treatment is administered to reduce the chance of muscles twitching and the body convulsing during the induced seizure.

How does ECT work?

Well, nobody is really sure. Experts say that the only thing they can be sure of is that the treatment does seem to have the ability to change patterns of blood flow through the brain.

It’s also thought to help with the release of brain chemicals that can aid recovery from severe depression. Some evidence suggests the condition is caused by a lack of certain brain chemicals, which ECT can release and help make more effective.

What conditions is ECT used to treat?

According to UK mental health charity Mind, ECT is most commonly used if someone has severe depression that may become life-threatening, an individual hasn’t responded to medication or improved after talking treatments, has found ECT helpful in the past and makes the decision to try it again or has severe postnatal depression.

The treatment may also be used if someone experiences a manic or psychotic episode, which is severe and continues for a long time, or if someone has become catatonic.

Why is ECT controversial?

ECT doesn’t have the best historical reputation thanks to poor practice and misuse of the treatment. Between the 1950s and 1970s it was used far more frequently than it is now, sometimes without consent or any anaesthetic.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists say that in England the treatment’s use more than halved between 1985 and 2002.

In the past, some said ECT seemed more like a form of punishment than a form of treatment, making it very unpopular. And when it was portrayed as such in films its poor reputation grew.

Does ECT have side effects?

The treatment has been known to cause short-term memory loss and, in some cases, more prolonged memory loss can be experienced. This can lead to anxiety.

Each patient is different and thus responds differently. Some are very happy with their ECT treatment while others have a negative opinion of it.


For more information check out the Royal College of Psychiatrists or Mind


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