Thousands of women given ‘dangerous’ electric shocks as mental health treatment in England

Thousands of women in England with mental health problems are being given electric shock treatment despite concerns the therapy can cause irreparable brain damage.

NHS data seen by the The Indepenedent reveals the scale of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) prescribed disproportionately to women, who make up two thirds of patients receiving the treatment.

Health professionals have warned the therapy can cause brain damage so severe recipients are unable to recognise family and friends or do basic maths.

While some patients say the therapy profoundly helped them, leading mental charities have branded it “damaging” and “outdated” and called for its use to be halted pending an urgent review or banned entirely.

Statistics obtained through Freedom of Information requests by Dr John Read, a professor at the University of East London and leading expert on ECT, showed 67 per cent of 1,964 patients received the treatment in 2019 were female.

ECT was given to women twice as often as men across 20 NHS trusts in the UK, his research found. The trusts also said some 36 per cent of their patients in 2019 underwent ECT without providing consent.

The NHS could only provide statistics on whether ECT was successful in 16 per cent of trusts, while just 3 per cent of trusts had mechanisms in place to monitor side effects. The audit of ECT clinics by Dr Read and his colleagues found around 2,500 patients undergo ECT in England every year, with people over the age of 60 making up 58 per cent.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), which provides recommendations that guide NHS treatment decisions, said its guidelines stipulated doctors “should only consider ECT for acute treatment of severe depression that is life-threatening and when a rapid response is required, or when other treatments have failed”.

A spokesperson added patients should be fully informed of the risks associated with ECT and the decision to deploy the treatment “should be made jointly with the person with depression as far as possible”.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said ECT “can have side effects” but noted “most people who have ECT see an improvement in their symptoms”.

However, Dr Read claimed the Nice guidelines are routinely ignored. His study found many NHS trusts admitted to giving patients ECT without first offering them treatments such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy.

The academic, who worked as a clinical psychologist for almost 20 years, also argued guidelines are “very weak” as they fail to spell out specific risks patients should be told about.

“They also don’t spell out the fact ECT is barely better than placebo,” he added. “We have bombarded Nice with research showing that ECT is unsafe in terms of causing brain damage and memory loss. They have just ignored our correspondence.”

In every country where research has been conducted, ECT is used twice as much on women as men, Dr Read said. He noted most psychiatrists in the UK will not use ECT on patients but suggested they would speak out against their colleagues who do so.

Dr Read said the most recent efficacy study was conducted in 1985 and argued previous research showed very little evidence of its positive impacts.

In my view, there is never a good reason to give an animal or human electric shocks to the brain. In another circumstance, it is fatal – you’re not meant to get electrocuted.

Dr Jessica Taylor

“A major adverse effect is memory loss. Studies find between 12 and 55 per cent of people get long-lasting or permanent brain damage which results in memory loss,” he added.

“We also know women and older people who are the target groups are paradoxically more likely to suffer memory loss than other people. They should be the groups who are getting it less because of the dangers.”

Sue Cunliffe, who began ECT in 2004, told The Independent it “completely destroyed” her life despite a psychiatrist telling her there would be no long-term side effects.

The former children’s doctor, 55, was referred to a psychiatrist after suffering from depression following issues with her ex-husband, who she was married to for two decades.

Sue Cunliffe

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