Mental Health

This One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: ECT in Real Life

This one flew over the cuckoo's nest: ECT in real life - cartoon os a cuckoo clock and a lit up brain

Ask anyone of a certain age what comes to mind first when they hear the term electroconvulsive therapy (aka ECT, electroshock therapy, or shock therapy), and chances are they will mention the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson.  Given the lack of more realistic portrayals of this treatment, a lot of people view ECT as dangerous and obsolete. Except it’s not; ECT in real life is a very different creature.

ECT is a highly effective treatment option for depression, and can also play a role in mania and psychosis.  One of the biggest benefits is that it works fast, much faster than antidepressants.  That’s why I first received ECT; it was my first hospitalization, I was highly suicidal, and the treatment team just wasn’t prepared to wait the weeks it would take to see if I would respond to an antidepressant.  I was too ill to be able to remember any of those first few weeks, and I was being treated on an involuntary basis, but being a mental health nurse, I probably knew, at least on some level, that this was a good idea.

The ECT process

The process of ECT in real life is fairly simple, and very different from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In the movie, a shock was applied with no anaesthetic, and he began wildly thrashing about.  None of that is representative of current ECT practice.

As a patient, they put you out cold with a general anaesthetic (such as propofol) and a muscle relaxant (succinylcholine).  These are given by IV and knock you out within seconds.  I had the odd experience of getting a yummy smoky sort of smell after they injected the drugs, even though the only thing coming through the mask on my face was oxygen.  One of the reasons I like ECT is because I love that smell.  This is not something I’ve heard anyone else report, but I experienced it every single time.

Once you’re anaesthetized, they fit the rubber bite guard into your mouth to protect your teeth and tongue.  The shock is delivered via two electrodes placed on the head.  The muscle relaxant means there is not a visible seizure; instead, the intensity of the seizure is measured via EEG (electroencephalogram).  You wake up feeling fairly clear-headed (at least in relation to how you were feeling beforehand); sometimes I haven’t even realized the ECT had already been done.

diagram of a patient hooked up to monitors for ECT
Patient monitoring during ECT – diagram not available with English-language labelling

Various parameters can be adjusted in the delivery of ECT, including the electrode placement.  Unilateral ECT involves both electrodes placed on the same side of the head; it’s less likely to cause side effects.  Bilateral ECT involves one electrode on each side of the head (on either the temples or forehead). It’s more effective, but at the same time, it’s also more likely to cause side effects.  

Unilateral didn’t work very well for me, so after my first few treatments I’ve always had bilateral ECT.  I’ve also required relatively long courses of ECT; instead of the typical 8-ish, I’ve needed 15+ during a couple of my hospitalizations.

Effects on memory

I am one of those mental health professionals who tells clients that ECT usually doesn’t have significant effects on memory.  That’s absolutely true, but my experience was not typical, and I’m not alone in that atypicality.  

I’ve experienced a lot of memory loss from ECT, although it didn’t impact the formation of new memories after completing treatment.  Mostly it affected short-term memory, but some of the memory loss has gone farther back.  There have been substantial chunks of time that have gone missing from the months leading up to my first hospitalization.  Some of these eventually did return, but others didn’t.

It was truly bizarre to have people tell me things that I did or even show me photographs taken of me, and I would have sworn that these events never occurred.  I feel absolutely certain I’ve never been snow-tubing, yet there’s a photo of me doing exactly that at a local ski hill.  

My family tended to notice the memory loss the most, as I’d ask the same questions over and over.  On a lighter note, after each discharge from hospital after a course of ECT, it was kind of fun to return home to what seemed like brand new clothes/shoes/household items that I had no memory of purchasing.

Despite the ECT-induced amnesia, it remains very much on the table as a treatment option for me.  I’d probably ask for outpatient ECT right now if it weren’t for the requirement that someone be available to take you home after treatments and keep an eye on you (a safety precaution because of the use of general anaesthetic).  This just isn’t feasible given my current circumstances, and it bothers me that this restriction limits my access.

So, that’s my journey over the cuckoo’s nest receiving ECT in real life.  A lot less movie-worthy than Jack Nicholson’s, but a lot more real.

Book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, 2nd ed., by Ashely L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle. The revised and expanded 2nd edition is now available on Amazon.

This post contains affiliate links that let you support MH@H at no extra cost to you.

5 thoughts on “This One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: ECT in Real Life”

  1. I have never considered ECT, but I have known a couple of people who have gone down that route. It is an interesting one to be sure. This post is very informative, thank you for sharing this with the mental health community.

  2. Through the V.A. in KCMO, I was given 2 series of 9 over a 2 year period, yes – it relieved the major suicidal predilections but I’ve never ever been able to function as an effective member of the work force afterward. I wish I’d have admitted the problem early on and chosen transition in my 20’s rather than ECT

      1. It jyst wasnt the correct response for the base problem at the time but that’s on me ☺ have a pleasant morning

Leave a Reply