Concerns have been raised following the recent publication of a 2019 audit which shows that Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust administered ECT to 169 patients (including to a child under the age of 18) over the course of the year, which is 3 times more than the contemporaneous national average of 53. The audit was prepared following a Freedom of Information request from a campaigning group of psychologists who are sceptical about the benefits of ECT, an increasingly controversial anti-depressive and anti-bipolar treatment which passes electric currents into the brain in order to induce seizures.

The discrepancy in the figures between Avon & Wiltshire Trust and the rest of the country seems to underline long-standing fears that ECT is not an evidence-based treatment but relies instead on the preferences of treating clinicians. Dr Chris Harrop, a psychologist now in private practice but with 25 years’ experience in working for the NHS, and the co-author of the results of the 2019 audit, said that any positive effects of ECT were “almost certainly placebo” and that the treatment had many downsides including a “high instance of memory loss.”

In response, Avon & Wiltshire Trust itself pointed out that it has a good provision of accredited clinics where ECT is administered compared to other Trusts, indicating that it may be able to provide more ECT sessions in terms of absolute numbers. The Trust also stressed that it carefully balances the risks of ECT with the severity of the patients’ disorders and how responsive they have been to other treatments, with ECT very much a last resort.

The publication this year of the figures from the 2019 audit follows the results of a 2020 study led by researchers from the University of East London which cast doubt on the efficacy of ECT and called for its immediate suspension. This study was itself part of a growing international campaign against ECT due largely to concerns over its reported side-effects on memory, which can range from mild to severe. In 2018 an American class action was decided in the Claimants’ favour due to manufacturers of ECT equipment failing to warn of the potential negative effects of the treatment. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) continues to recommend the use of ECT in otherwise intractable cases but says that it is currently reviewing its guidelines (last updated in 2014) in light of recent concerns.

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