Controversial electroshock therapy can be life-saving in small number of cases — psychiatrist

TVNZ One News 21 June 2021
The controversial use of electroshock treatment on children is at the centre of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Lake Alice’s child and adolescent unit.

If used properly, the treatment can be a life-saving option in a small number of cases, according to psychiatrist Richard Porter.

“People with depression who are getting ECT are really very, very unwell and sometimes if not treated, they will die,” he said.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Lake Alice has been hearing how it was used on children without anaesthetic.

However, things have changed in the decades since.

“For the last 30 years, at least — probably 40, in fact — anaesthetics have been used in New Zealand,” Porter said.

ECT involves sedating a patient and placing two electrodes on their temples. A series of brief, high-voltage pulses send electric currents through the brain, causing a surge, also known as a seizure.

Porter said “giving enough electricity to cause that seizure is what causes the improvement”.

“Approximately 25 per cent of people say that their memory has been affected and of course, that’s why we reserve it for very, very severe cases,” he explained.

In New Zealand, about 200 to 300 patients are treated with ECT every year, with many of them with severe depression. But, unlike at Lake Alice, it’s virtually never used on children.

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