25 June, 2018

Involuntary electroconvulsive therapy: new publication from TCD researchers

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Researchers at the Dept of Psychiatry, Trinity College Dublin, have found that people who have involuntary electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression have similar outcomes to those who have voluntary treatment. The research paper, just published in the July issue of the journal Brain Stimulation, is the largest study of its kind and one of very few studies to report on people requiring involuntary treatment, who are rarely able to take part in clinical research.

Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. People who suffer from severe depression may lose the capacity to make decisions and require treatment under mental health law in order to recover.  ECT is the most effective acute treatment for severe depression and is sometimes administered as an involuntary treatment around the world. In Ireland, approximately fifty people require involuntary ECT each year.  

The research team, led by Professor Declan McLoughlin, studied the records of five years of involuntary ECT treatment at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. The team reported on 48 involuntary ECT courses and compared these with 96 courses of voluntary ECT administered to people of the same age and sex at the same time.  The results showed that people who have involuntary ECT were more severely unwell before treatment than those having voluntary ECT and were more likely to have psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, and have more physical deterioration as a result of severe self-neglect. However, in both groups, outcomes at the end of ECT were similar, with the large majority of people rated “very much improved” or “much improved.”

These results shed light on a group about which little is known. Prof Declan McLoughlin explained: “People who require involuntary ECT are among the most severely unwell in our mental health services. Yet, because they generally lack decision-making capacity and cannot take part in research, we do not know for sure if we can apply research advances to persons having involuntary ECT. Our knowledge of how best to use ECT to help someone recover from severe depression is based on research samples comprised entirely of people choosing to have voluntary ECT.”

Professor McLoughlin said “Our results are reassuring for people who have had involuntary ECT and their families. It’s also a relief to mental health professionals to know that the research results on which we base treatment decisions for voluntary treatment can now be used with greater confidence to also guide treatment for people having involuntary ECT.” He cautioned, however, that “although ECT is a safe and highly effective evidence-based treatment, ongoing research is essential to understand who will benefit most from the treatment, and how to help people with depression stay well after recovery.”

Professor McLoughlin’s Depression Neurobiology Research Group is funded by the Health Research Board and Medical Charities Research Group. More information about the work of the research group is available at:

Prof Declan McLoughlin is available at and for discussion by appointment at 01 2493385.

Tags:   Research   ECT   depression