Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

ECT stands for electroconvulsive therapy, sometimes referred to as “shock therapy”. It was developed in the 1930s. It has been the subject of controversy for a very long time. ECT is very effective for the treatment of severe depression. It is also an effective treatment for mania and catatonia 1.

Although ECT was originally developed to treat people with schizophrenia, currently it is rarely used for that disorder 2. That being said, ECT may be effective to treat the depression which afflicts many schizophrenics. It may also be beneficial for schizophrenics with other mood symptoms as well as for those not responding to treatment with antipsychotic medication.

Recent research has shown that the combination of antipsychotic medication and ECT, compared to antipsychotics alone, works better to bring about a fast clinical improvement in schizophrenic patients 3.

How ECT works

ECT causes a brief electric current to pass through a person’s brain. The electricity causes a seizure to occur, which lasts for about 30 seconds. Scientists still don’t full understand it, but the seizure impacts brain activity in a way which helps the patient’s symptoms.

Patients are given a muscle relaxant and anesthesia before ECT. They are closely monitored during the procedure, and are asleep for just a few minutes.

Since it works so quickly, ECT can be very beneficial to patients who are extremely depressed, suicidal, or acutely manic. They usually don’t remember the treatment itself, and may experience a brief period of confusion following ECT. Treatment may include up to 3 treatments a week, and from 6 to 15 sessions total. Follow up treatment usually includes both medication and psychotherapy.

ECT side effects and ongoing controversy

In addition to confusion, memory loss and headaches commonly occur immediately following ECT treatment. There is still much controversy and conflicting reports regarding the extent of memory loss and cognitive damage caused by ECT. Some researchers say it is not dangerous 3, whereas others say it is, and that its effects include permanent memory loss and cognitive impairment 4.

written by Dr. Cheryl Lane, PsyD


  1. Review: Clinical Manifestations, Diagnosis, and Empirical Treatments for Catatonia
  2. Electroconvulsive Therapy for Schizophrenia
  3. ECT Plus Drug Therapy Endorsed for Schizophrenia
  4. Electroconvulsive Therapy Causes Permanent Amnesia and Cognitive Deficits" Electroconvulsive Therapy Causes Permanent Amnesia and Cognitive Deficits