Trying Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

Medically reviewed by Jerry Crimmins, PsyD, LP
Updated April 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The discussion of mental health treatment may often be centered around psychotherapy and medication. While these treatment methods can be effective for many people, others may find that they don’t impact their symptoms as hoped.

Therefore, becoming aware of other treatments that are available, such as brain stimulation and ECT, may be helpful. One such treatment is called Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). Although somewhat controversial, there may be benefits to this practice.

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What Is Electroconvulsive Therapy?

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is a brain stimulation therapy that uses an electric current to treat severe symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, particularly when other treatment methods have not been effective. 

ECT is a medical procedure that involves administering electrical pulses to the brain while an individual is under  a short-acting anesthetic or a muscle relaxant. It may simulate seizure activity in the brain. 

Electroconvulsive therapy may cause changes in brain chemistry and brain function that can significantly alleviate symptoms associated with major depression and other problematic mental health conditions.. 

How Does ECT Work? 

Researchers are still unsure how ECT improves symptoms in individuals with severe mental illness. Several theories are that the electrical activities produced in ECT might trigger new brain cells to develop, shift the activity of current brain cells at the synapses, and increase neurotransmitters such as dopamine or serotonin.

Individuals typically undergo between 6-12 sessions of ECT, depending on how their symptoms respond to the multiple treatments. 

Is ECT Effective? 

ECT has been proven to be an effective treatment method for individuals with severe mental illness. According to extensive research, ECT significantly reduces symptoms of depression for about 80% of individuals. ECT early treatments  may also be considered for people with bipolar disorder who are not responding to other forms of ongoing treatment.

Risks And Benefits

While ECT may be ocnsidered generally safe, it also comes with several significant risks. This is why individuals who take part in this form of treatment are constantly monitored using a blood pressure cuff as well as other standard monitoring techniques. If you decide to partake in this treatment, you may first want to read up on the side effects and potential concerns published by research journals. 

Side Effects

Following an ECT procedure, an individual might experience side effects from general anesthesia, including nausea, headache, and confusion. They may also experience memory loss or amnesia, according to information from clinical trials.

Short-Term Memory Loss

One of the medical complications that can occur from ECT is short-term temporary memory loss in some individuals who have trouble remembering events from the weeks or months leading up to the ECT treatment. Many individuals  find that their memory problems subside after a few months, while others may experience more long-term challenges with ECT.

Consider weighing these potential risks with the benefits of the ECT treatment. Individuals who don’t experience symptom relief from medications or cannot tolerate medication may want to consider the treatment. 

Potential Benefits To ECT 

Since ECT and maintenance therapy in a controlled setting has been proven highly effective against treatment-resistant depression, it may be worth trying for those resistant to medications or therapy. ECT treatment may improve symptoms faster than medications, which could take several weeks to work. Also, ECT’s effectiveness is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and the APA task force. The National Institute of Mental Health also discusses the efficacy of ECT for severe mental health disorders.

You may also find that the treatment aids in other distressing symptoms, such as anxiety, hallucinations, or mania. Talk to your primary care physician and mental health care team provider before deciding. They may help you determine whether the treatment will work for you. 

Brain Stimulation As A Last Resort

Typically, ECT is considered after an individual has not seen a substantial improvement in their symptoms from medication or therapy. Therefore, these methods may be recommended first before considering ECT. 

If you continue to experience severe depression or psychosis after trying other treatment methods, ECT may be a good fit for helping to manage these. 

Therapy As An Alternative To ECT 

Suppose you’re experiencing depression and want support but don’t feel comfortable with the risks of ECT. In that case, a mental health counselor may offer resources, personal attention, and support to benefit you during this time. If you’re uncomfortable visiting a therapist in person or find it difficult to leave home, online therapy may be a suitable choice. 

Online therapy has been found to be as effective as in-person therapy, and a University of Zurich study found that it can be more effective in the long term. The study showed that depression could no longer be detected in 53% of online therapy users by the end of treatment (compared to 50% of in-person therapy users). At three months post-treatment, this number increased to 57% for those who had used online therapy (and decreased to 42% for in-person treatment).

Another review of multiple studies about online CBT found that the treatment significantly reduced anxiety and depression symptoms and was influential in treating PTSD, panic disorder, and specific phobias. If you feel more comfortable telling your symptoms and experiences in person, you might consider signing up for an online therapy platform such as BetterHelp


ECT may be effective in treating severe mental illness. However, because it can come with considerable side effects, it may be recommended only for those who have tried other treatment options and didn’t see improvement after a long period. 

Online therapy is an effective option for treating depression for many people. Part of this success is due to the virtual nature of online therapy. Studies show that most individuals feel most comfortable at home.

If you’d like to try therapy as a treatment option for depression or other mental health concerns, consider taking the first step by reaching out to a counselor. 

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