PATIENTS suffering from severe depression are being forced to have electroconvulsive therapy against their wishes under a controversial law that allows doctors to take action without consent.
New figures from the Mental Welfare Commission reveal that around 100 Scottish psychiatric patients are given ECT every year, despite “resisting” or “objecting” to treatment.
The disclosure has sparked a fresh debate about the use of ECT, a procedure that remains controversial decades after it first gained popularity as a treatment for patients with depression.
ECT, formerly known as electroshock therapy, was once widely used in patients with symptoms of depression during the 1940s and 1950s. With modern drugs its use has declined, but psychiatrists still prescribe it in some cases of severe depression where drugs have failed.
In most cases doctors cannot force a patient to have ECT and most of the 500 Scots undergoing the treatment every year do so after giving their full consent. But around 100 patients are treated despite objecting, because doctors believe it is in their best interests.
But some patients’ groups described the practice as “barbaric” and say a treatment which risks serious side-effects should not be given without the patient’s consent.
Margaret Watt, chairman of the Scotland Patients Association, said: “It’s barbaric. Many people will not be aware that ECT is still being carried out in this day and age.
“This seems to be a hidden treatment and we have to question whether we really need it anymore.”
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, the mental health charity, said: “ECT is an invasive and irreversible procedure. It should only ever be used as a last resort for cases of extreme depression, when every other treatment has been tried. Even then, it should never be given without fully informed consent, except in an emergency.
“Mind has found that people’s experiences of ECT vary enormously. We know that people can experience significant side-effects such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, headaches and dizziness.”
The practice was defended by Dr Donald Lyons, chief executive of the Mental Welfare Commission, which oversees hospitals administering ECT.
He said he was satisfied this was being done within the law. “In our view this works very well and makes sure that patients get the treatment they need,” he said.
“Although staff are allowed to use force, they must use the minimum force needed. In the majority of cases, staff are able to persuade the patient that the treatment is in their best interests.”