Thousands of women are being given “dangerous” electric shock treatment for their mental health

New data has revealed that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is being disproportionately used to treat women with mental health issues, including severe depression.

Thousands of women in England are being given “dangerous” electric shock treatment for mental health issues – despite warnings that it can cause irreparable brain damage and memory loss.

NHS data seen by The Independent reveals that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is disproportionately prescribed to women, who make up two-thirds of the patients being given the treatment. 

The figures – which were obtained via Freedom of Information requests made by Dr John Read, a professor at the University of East London and a leading expert on ECT – showed that 67% of the 1,964 patients who received ECT in 2019 were female and that 20 NHS trusts gave the treatment to women twice as often as men. The research also found that 36% of patients underwent the treatment without giving consent. 

ECT is used to treat a range of serious mental health problems including severe or life-threatening depression, catatonia and long-lasting manic episodes.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists previously described the treatment as “life-saving,” but many experts have called for the practice to be banned. In fact, in 2020, peer-reviewed research published in the journal Ethical Human Psychology And Psychiatry concluded that the practice should be “immediately suspended” because of “the high risk of permanent memory loss” it presents. 

While ECT is yet to be banned, current guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Evidence (NICE), which provides treatment guidelines to the NHS, say that ECT should only be used as a last resort. 

ECT is used to treat a range of serious mental health problems including severe or life-threatening depression, catatonia and long-lasting manic episodes.

“The recommendations in our current guideline on the identification and management of depression in adults state that clinicians 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 NICE spokesperson told Stylist.

“The patient should be fully informed of the risks associated with ECT and with the risks and benefits specific to them. Any decision to use ECT should be made jointly with the person with depression as far as possible, taking into account, where applicable, the requirements of the Mental Health Act 2007.”

However, Dr Read claims that these guidelines are routinely ignored and says his investigation found that many NHS trusts admitted to giving patients ECT without offering them traditional treatments such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

Speaking to The Independent, he also argued that his team have “bombarded” NICE with research showing that ECT is “unsafe” – and that the current guidelines are “very weak” because they do not spell out the specific risks patients should be warned 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.”

Responding to the report, Peter McCabe, chief executive of Headway, the brain injury association, told The Independent he was “concerned” about reports of patients experiencing neurological difficulties after receiving ECT and called for further research and an urgent review. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In a crisis, call 999.

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