Psychiatrists have long known that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is fast and effective in treating severe depression. At the same time, many experts have concluded that ECT can be dangerous, is not supported by any hard research data, and may cause the loss of long-term memory. No matter which side of the debate you're on, the thought of ECT inspires fear in just about everyone. But what about the mentally ill who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions? Is it right to forcibly administer ECT to these patients?
As human rights take center stage, the rights of patients are also receiving wider recognition. Some advocacy groups have begun to lobby for patients' rights and that means that the issue has now entered the political arena, as well. So, there is really a double issue surrounding forced ECT: Is the procedure safe? Is the balance of power now with the psychiatrists and not with the patients?
In Ireland, a Joint Oireachtas Committee is set to hear the various sides of the ECT debate at a special meeting to be convened for this purpose. Ireland's Minister of State, John Moloney, who is in charge of mental health, will decide whether to recommend that changes be made to existing government legislature on the topic. In the meantime, lobbyists in both spheres--patient and physician--are working hard to gain public support for their positions within the debate.
Current Irish legislature holds that ECT be used only as a last resort. For the most part, ECT can only be administered after obtaining written patient consent. However, when patients cannot or will not grant consent, approval by two consulting psychiatrists is sufficient to allow the administration of the controversial treatment. Statistics show that of 400 psychiatric patients who received the treatments in 2008, 43 involuntarily committed patients were either unwilling or unable to grant consent to some 300 doses of ECT therapy.
One lobbyist who is on the side of patients' rights is John McCarthy, mental health lobbyist and the founder of Mad Pride Ireland. McCarthy is pushing for an amendment, “This amendment won’t outlaw ECT,” McCarthy says. “But it would prevent treatment being given to non-consenting patients on the direction of two consultant psychiatrists.”
McCarthy views are in tandem with Dr. Pat Bracken, a consulting psychiatrist for the Health Service Executive in west Cork. McCarthy says that the forced administration of ECT no longer meets with approval by any standards, be they moral or scientific.