Shock tactics: ECT is still being used, at times without the consent of the patient

Some 400 psychiatric patients received 2,700 electric shock treatments in 2008, according to the Mental Health Commission. At least 43 were involuntarily detained and received about 300 doses without giving consent. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) involves attaching electrodes to the scalp that send a current through the brain and result in a seizure that most psychiatrists consider beneficial. Most of last year’s ECT patients suffered depressive disorders, schizophrenia or mania and had not responded to medication. Guidelines state ECT should only be used when alternative therapies have been considered or failed. It should only be administered with the patient’s consent, or if that’s not possible, with the approval of two consultant psychiatrists.

Negative currents: Critics claim it is an abuse of human rights

Mental health campaigners have criticised ECT as a human rights abuse, claiming it can cause permanent memory loss and arguing that benefits are short lived. Mary Maddock, of human rights campaign group MindFreedom Ireland, underwent 16 sessions of ECT after she was diagnosed with postnatal depression. She suffered permanent memory loss and described it as “a barbaric assault on the individual”.

John McCarthy, left, the founder of Mad Pride Ireland, a lobby group for mental health, said that while some patients benefit from ECT, many don’t. McCarthy has lobbied for six years to ban involuntary use. He said imposing ECT is a breach of fundamental human rights “in any rational person’s mind”.

Positive connectivity: Psychiatrists believe that it can save the lives of depressives

Many consultant psychiatrists and professional bodies believe that ECT is an effective and important treatment. Justin Brophy, president of the Irish College of Psychiatry, said the dangers are often misrepresented. He said research indicates that memory loss is usually short term and can be resolved. The Scottish ECT Accreditation Network found that 74% of patients who consented, and 86% of patients who did not, showed a definite improvement following ECT last year. John Moloney, left, the minister of state for mental health, recently referred to a 2003 review in The Lancet which found that ECT was probably more effective than drug therapy. However, the recorded number of patients receiving electric shock therapy has fallen over recent years.

Pulling the plug: ECT could soon be banned

The Mental Health Commission’s figures did not include patients referred to other hospitals. Its study also found a disparity in ECT administration, with St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin, left, and St Brigid’s in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, performing the most procedures. Involuntary ECT is allowed under Article 59b of the Mental Health Act 2001. Campaigners are calling on the government to amend this. Green Party senators this month introduced a Private Members’ Bill to abolish the forced administration of ECT. Moloney says he has received many submissions, and while there is more work to be done, he is prepared to accept such amendments. A mental health review will begin in March.