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Man speaking out against ‘shocking’ past

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A Kenora man who figures he’s had more than 50 electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments in his lifetime says he is now working to have them banned.

The man, who requested his name be withheld, claimed he was given the ECT treatments to cure alcoholism and depression for 25 years.

He said his problems started when he was 26 after he found his brother dead. He turned to binge drinking, and was plagued by hallucinations and voices telling him to kill himself.

And he said that started years of medication and ECT treatments—along with 10 suicide attempts—that only stopped after a car accident in 1992 almost claimed his life.

At that time, he decided to take his health into his own hands. He said he has gone completely off medication and ECT, and is going to an addictions counsellor instead.

Now he said he’s gone as far as to sign forms refusing any further ECT treatments.

“It’s torture as far as I’m concerned," he said. "There’s so many things that I don’t remember. Just so many things gone from my mind.”

“There is a certain amount of memory loss associated with the treatment itself,” admitted Dr. Lois Hutchinson, chief of psychiatry at Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital, stressing patients may experience transient memory loss immediately before and following the treatment.

“A lot of claims people make about memory loss are often unfounded,” she added, noting depression itself often spurs memory loss, as does alcohol.

And she stressed studies proved that.

But Dr. Peter Breggin, director of the Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology, on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., and author of “Toxic Psychology,” said animal studies showed ECT causes brain damage, killed brain cells, and spurred memory loss.

“Naturally, not everybody’s going to recover from that. I’ve seen people lose their whole professional life,” he argued, saying results are variable, depending on the treatment.

"Any assault on the brain will end up on a curve.

“When it was first done, it’s purpose was to damage the brain,” he said of ECT’s 1938 roots, adding the treatment has changed very little over the years.

But Dr. Hutchinson stressed ECT is an effective treatment of depression, especially psychotic forms including paranoia and hallucinations.

It’s also good when people need a very quick response from depression, she added, or for those who can’t take or don’t respond to medication.

ECT produces a quick response while anti-depressant medications can take from four to six weeks to work.

Dr. Hutchinson admitted they don’t really know how ECT works but the electrical stimulation produces a seizure, causing the neuro-transmitters in the brain to change—the same as with medication, only faster.

There is improvement after the first treatment but that is often short-lived, she noted. Usually patients are given six to 10 treatments every two to three days and the voltage depends on the patient. The treatment is done within two or three minutes.

But Dr. Breggin argued the best way to treat depression was with therapy.

“When somebody’s depressed, the problem isn’t in their brain. Depression comes from profound, paralyzing internal conflicts. It’s hopelessness,” he reasoned.

While she admitted some people speak out against ECT, Dr. Hutchinson noted people also speak out against medication and other medical treatments.

ECT is a recognized form of medical treatment in Canada and the United States.

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