'A big chunk of your life taken away'

Jim and Mary Maddock are lobbying for alternatives to the "medical model" of psychiatry. Photograph: Daragh MacSweeney/Provision

MARY MADDOCK (62) doesn’t remember anything about the first time she received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Memory loss was the biggest side-effect of the treatment. In fact, she says, she has lost entire chunks of her life.

“It completely wiped everything out,” she says. “I spent eight weeks in the psychiatric hospital and most of it is gone. I don’t remember where I ate or slept or who came to see me.”

Mary had given birth to her daughter Claire two weeks earlier. Doctors believed she was suffering from a form of post-natal depression, but she had no history of psychiatric problems or depression.

She remembers more about the second time she underwent ECT, in the late 1980s. “I remember the cylinders for the electric shock; I remember them taking your pillow, so they had better access to your head, taking the anaesthetic and counting backwards until you were knocked out.

“It was a very scary thing to be part of, not knowing what was happening and then waking up with the most awful pain in your head like you wouldn’t believe. And not remembering things which had happened recently. It was like a big chunk of your life being taken away.

“This is why I can’t even remember holding Claire in my arms for the first time. It breaks my heart.”

The ECT formed part of two decades of drug-based treatment which, she says, took a massive toll on her health and ultimately prevented her from emerging from her condition.

After being diagnosed at various stages as being hypomanic, bipolar or manic depressive, she was placed on a range of powerful anti-psychotic drugs over a period of about 18 years. “The effects of the drugs were terrible. You felt like a zombie,” she says. “Movement was very slow and I found it impossible to concentrate on anything.”

It is 10 years since she touched a drug to deal with mental ill-health. Radicalised by her treatment in the psychiatric service, she has become an advocate for change.

Mary, with her husband Jim (60), a former secondary-school teacher, are lobbying for alternatives to the “medical model” that dominates much of psychiatry.

While she accepts the psychiatric service is changing slowly, Mary says treatment options are still too narrow and don’t respect patients’ rights.

“We believe ECT is a human rights abuse. It wouldn’t be accepted in any other field of medicine, but because they [patients] are vulnerable, the psychiatric profession gets away with it,” she says.

ECT: the top 10 

The following list shows which psychiatric hospitals carried out the most ECT treatments during 2008.

1. St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin: 867

2. St Brigid’s Hospital, Ballinasloe: 281

3. St John of God Hospital, Dublin: 189

4. Waterford Regional Hospital: 181

5. University College Hospital Galway: 167

6. Midwestern Regional Hospital, Limerick: 134

7. Jonathan Swift Clinic (administered in St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin): 95

8. St Loman’s Hospital, Mullingar: 88

9. Mayo General Hospital: 83

10. St Luke’s, Kilkenny: 74.

Source: the Mental Health Commission’s report on the Use of Electroconvulsive Therapy in Approved Centres in 2008