MPs call for ban on electric shock therapy

MPs from across the political spectrum have said that there should be a review into the continued use of the controversial treatment

16th March 2023 about a 3 minute read
“Given that this therapy can cause severe neurological impairments, I believe that it should be halted until a review has been completed on its long-term impact on patients’ health.” Marsha de Cordova, Labour MP for Battersea

MPs have called for a ban on electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat mental illness, the Independent has reported.

They told the paper that they were concerned that ECT was disproportionally given to women, and argued that patients are not properly notified of the treatment’s potential side effects.

Dr Pallavi Devulapalli, a GP as well as the health, social care and public health spokesperson for the Green Party, said the government should carry out an “urgent and comprehensive review” of the treatment. She said she was concerned that no new robust research has been carried out into ECT since 1985 despite “multiple anecdotal reports of harm and distress, such as memory loss and fatigue” in those who have undergone the treatment.

Robin Walker, chair of the Commons education select committee, said he wanted to ensure the government “is taking an evidence-based approach”. He added: “Given concerns raised about ECT, we should order a pause while the evidence is fully reviewed and it is ensured that full guidance is properly being followed.”

Marsha de Cordova, MP for Battersea and a former shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, said it was “deeply worrying” that women are disproportionally given ECT and that patients have not been “appropriately warned about the side effects”. De Cordova went on: “Given that this therapy can cause severe neurological impairments, I believe that it should be halted until a review has been completed on its long-term impact on patients’ health.”

Patient care should be ‘at heart’ of treatment

Dr Sue Cunliffe, who began ECT in 2004, told the Independent that the treatment “completely destroyed” her life: “By the end of it, I couldn’t recognise relatives or friends. I couldn’t count money out. I couldn’t do my two times table. I couldn’t navigate anywhere. I couldn’t remember what I’d done from one minute to another.”

While psychiatrists are legally required to gain an individual’s consent before administering ECT, if a patient who has been sectioned and refuses to undergo ECT, the psychiatrist can decide they are not competent to make that decision themselves.

Layla Moran MP said that the Liberal Democrats supported a call by Mind, the mental health charity, to carry out a review into how ECT is administered, and warned that “patient experience and care” must be at the heart of any treatment.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said, however, that ECT is mainly used for patients with severe depression, particularly when their depression has not responded to other treatments. “As with many medical treatments, it can have side effects that vary in severity between individuals, and which need to be weighed against the benefits and fully discussed with patients, but most people who have ECT see an improvement in their symptoms,” a spokesperson told the Independent. The spokesperson said that ECT can help “people who are very unwell” to become well enough to “have other kinds of treatments”, adding that it can also enable them to “stay well for longer”.

They added that banning or suspending ECT “would mean that patients with a life-threatening condition are denied access to effective treatment.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said the therapy was “closely regulated” under the 1983 Mental Health Act, and that they expected healthcare professionals and services to follow to NICE guidelines, which are kept under regular review. They added: “In the draft Mental Health Bill, we are looking to strengthen this safeguard by requiring that the clinician gets approval from a second opinion appointed doctor before treatment can be administered.”

FCC Insight

It is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 people in England receive electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) each year. It is generally only carried out on people with severe depressive symptoms where other treatment has failed. ECT remains controversial, with strong views expressed by clinicians on both sides of the debate. Advocates say that the treatment can be life-saving, while critics point to long-term side-effects in some patients. A comprehensive review, as called for by MPs, would be able to evaluate the evidence and recommend whether the treatment still has a role to play in psychiatric medicine.