Ethical Issues

Is ECT so harmful that it should be outlawed? Very few persons maintain this position. ECT has an extremely small risk of causing death. It probably also has a small risk of causing chronic mild memory impairment, and a very small risk of causing chronic serious memory impairment. It is frequently used, however, in clinical settings where other treatments have failed and where the patient is suffering intensely and may be at risk of dying. Severe depression is a miserable and a serious illness: The three-year death rate in untreated or undertreated patients is about 10 percent, while in treated patients, it is about 2 percent (Avery and Winokur). Even if the risks of ECT were substantially greater than they are, it would still be rational in the clinical setting of severe depression for patients to consent to receiving ECT.

As with all other treatments in medicine, the possible harms and benefits of ECT should be explained to the patient during the consent process. The risk of death and of chronic memory dysfunction should be mentioned specifically. The APA Task Force also stipulates that a discussion should be included, during the consent process, "of the relative merits and risks of the different stimulus electrode placements and the specific choice that has been made for the patient. The patient's understanding of the data presented should be appraised, questions should be encouraged, and ample time for decision making should be allowed. Patients should be free to change their minds about receiving ECT, either before the treatments start or once they are under way" (pp. 5—6).

ECT is often suggested to patients only after other treatments have failed. However, although it has slight risks, ECT has several advantages over other treatments: It works more quickly, in a higher percentage of cases, and it does not have the annoying and, for some cardiac patients, possibly dangerous side effects of many antidepressant drugs. Following the general notion that part of an adequate valid consent process is to inform patients of any available rational treatment options (Gert et al.), a strong argument can be made that, from the outset of treatment, seriously depressed patients should be offered ECT as one therapeutic option (Culver et al.). The APA Task Force states: "As a major treatment in psychiatry with well-defined indications, ECT should not be reserved for use only as a last resort."

Do psychiatrists often coerce patients into receiving ECT? This seems doubtful, but there are no data addressing this question. In the overwhelming majority of cases, psychiatrists should not force any treatment on a patient. Nonetheless there are very rare clinical situations in which it is ethically justified to give ECT to patients who refuse it (Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry): for example, patients in danger of dying from a severe depression that has not been responsive to other forms of treatment (Merskey). But this is a special instance of the general ethical issue of justified paternalistic treatment, and no special rules should apply to psychiatric patients or to ECT (Gert et al.).

There seems no reason to believe that the consent or the refusal depressed patients give to undergo ECT is not in most cases valid. If a patient is given adequate information about the treatment, if he or she understands and appreciates this information, and if the patient's choice is not forced, then the decision is valid and, in almost all cases, should be respected. Most psychiatrists would assert that the great majority of depressed patients are like the great majority of all patients: They feel bad, they would like to feel better, and if presented with information about available treatment options, they try to make a rational choice.

Is ECT disproportionally and unjustly given to women patients? There are no data that address this question, and it would be useful to obtain them. However, given the fact that women suffer from clinically significant depression two to three times more frequently than men (Willner), the critical question is not whether more women in total receive ECT, as would be expected, but whether ECT is given at a higher rate to women than to equally depressed men.

CHARLES M. CULVER (1 995) REVISED BY AUTHOR

SEE ALSO: Behaviorism; Behavior Modification Therapies; Electrical Stimulation of the Brain; Emotions; Freedom and Free Will; Human Dignity; Informed Consent: Issues of Consent in Mental Healthcare; Mental Health Therapies; Mental Illness: Issues in Diagnosis; Neuroethics; Psychiatry, Abuses of; Psychosurgery, Ethical Aspects of; Psychosurgery, Medical and Historical Aspects of; Research Policy: Risk and Vulnerable Groups; Technology

Anxiety and Depression 101

Anxiety and Depression 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about. We have been discussing depression and anxiety and how different information that is out on the market only seems to target one particular cure for these two common conditions that seem to walk hand in hand.

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