Vulnerable teenagers subjected to brain electro shock therapy on the NHS

Vulnerable teens with mental health issues are routinely given controversial electric shock therapy by NHS doctors.

A Sunday Mirror probe today reveals patients as young as 16 have been given ECT despite fears over its long-term effects.

Studies have shown ECT can cause memory loss, disorientation and even brain damage. 

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that from 2016 to 2018, 5,165 patients were given shocks to the brain as high as 460 volts.

The patients were aged 16 to 98. The total number of teens treated is not identified but a separate report seen by the Mirror shows one in six NHS Trusts administered ECT to under-18s.

Barbara Keeley, Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Social Care, said: “The use of electroconvulsive therapy on children and young people with mental health conditions by NHS trusts is deeply concerning and warrants immediate investigation by the Government and NHS England.

“Even in adults this treatment ought to be a last resort.”

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Data shows the therapy can bring on Alzheimer’s in older patients.

In more than one-third of cases it is given without patient consent, while 30 per cent of trusts administer ECT without seeking a second opinion.

Many patients were not offered all alternatives before doctors turned to the extreme measure, even though guidelines set by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommend it as a “very last resort”.

None of the 37 NHS Trusts who co-operated with our investigation reported giving aftercare to patients to help with side-effects.

And experts and politicians last night called for an immediate Government investigation, claiming it is being used before alternative approaches have been exhausted.

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Leading expert Professor John Read said: “There can be no justification for giving ECT to teenagers. Their brains are still developing – and we know what it does to adults. In older adults it speeds up dementia.”

Referring to extreme methods from yesteryear, he added: “We think in about 10 years we will be able to look back on this the way we now look back on lobotomies, surprise baths, rotating chairs and standing people next to cannon fire and we will either laugh or cry. Probably cry.”

ECT involves small electric currents passing through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. 

Although the modern process is done under anaesthetic, its physical and mental side-effects are well documented. Our figures show significant numbers treated in the past two years reported adverse effects.

Of the 5,165 given ECT, 70 reported having memory issues post-therapy. But this figure is likely to be much higher as experts fear many cases go unreported.

Sussex NHS Trust confirmed 256 patients had ECT. In random sampling, of 25 patients quizzed 14 had memory loss, with two suffering “significant memory impairment”.

Critics claim a spike in patients is because ECT is a cheap therapy.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said 2017-18 income was £105million down in five years, in real terms.

A probe by the British Medical Association last year showed patients with serious mental health issues, leading to self-harm or attempted suicide, waited up to two years for specialist support.

Some 3,700 waited more than six months for counselling and 1,500 waited longer than a year. Sue Cunliffe, a former doctor, had 21 rounds of ECT between 2004-2005 at NHS Worcestershire.

She believes talking therapy would have cured her, but she never had it.

Sue said: “I had a reactive depression. I was classed as being drug resistant. The only treatment they said I could have was electroconvulsive therapy.

“From the moment I had ECT I started complaining about not being able to remember things, people’s faces.

“They seem so pleased with who they’ve cured and yet totally and utterly dismiss people like me.

“It’s almost dehumanising and I feel like I am almost like a sacrificial lamb.

“That it doesn’t matter what they do to some people as long as they cure others.”

Some doctors argue that ECT is wrongly stigmatised – and say it could even be used more.

Tim Oakley, a consultant psychiatrist with the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust, said: “There are some patients who would respond very well to ECT who perhaps don’t get it as quickly as they should – or they don’t get it at all – for various reasons.

“In terms of getting people better, particularly for depression where everything else fails, it is still the best treatment.”

A doctor who has undergone ECT also supported it. Dr Frances Coleman Williams had the therapy in 2008 at Royal South Hants Hospital.

She said: “ECT was part of my journey. I had lots of therapy and lots of medications and lots of people who helped me – and I needed ECT during all of that.

“It was a vital part of my journey to get me out of that particularly dark patch.

“When the psychiatrist suggested it, he did talk about side-effects – possible headaches, possible memory loss, possible difficulties with thinking.

“I do feel that I was fully consented. When the situation is completely hopeless and this is the only hope there is, it felt like I may as well give it a go.

“We didn’t have any time to wait, because I was going to kill myself otherwise.”

NHS England and the Royal College of Psychiatry were unwilling to give a statement about the role of ECT in memory loss.

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