By Teresa Henderson, BSN, RN
Individuals who are taking part in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat severe depression and other mental health diagnoses, or who are considering the treatment, have many questions and concerns. At McLean Hospital, our goal is to provide the resources and support necessary to make a comfortable and informed choice to proceed with ECT. Because of the many fears and misconceptions surrounding the treatment, comprehensive support is essential. Psychiatrists, nurses, and organized support groups at McLean and other institutions often work together to answer questions, alleviate concerns, and help keep treatment and recovery on track.
What many people don’t know, however, is that support is also available to help families and caregivers of ECT clients. This support is equally important, because family members and caregivers play a crucial role in helping their loved ones consider the treatment, engage with the therapy team, and move toward recovery.
As a nurse at McLean’s ECT Service, I’ve seen firsthand the essential role family members play. Working as a liaison between our ECT clinic, our patients, and their families, I regularly answer questions about what ECT entails, potential side effects, and logistics involved in the recovery process. Because of the many concerns patients and families have about ECT, we’ve created patient and family support groups. Right now, McLean offers a monthly support group for outpatients, education groups on our inpatient units, and a group focused on improving memory and cognition after ECT is completed. Family involvement is central to the success of patient recovery, and it is an important aspect in each one of our groups.
Our ECT support groups offer a safe place where all aspects of the treatment can be discussed openly. Patients and their family members can draw on the experiences of other patients who attend the group. Often, former patients will attend groups to share their experience and tell attendees how much ECT has helped them get back to their life.
The groups provide an opportunity to assure patients and families that modern ECT techniques use anesthesia and muscle relaxants to maximize safety and minimize side effects. Patients and caregivers can also hear firsthand accounts of how memory impairment is experienced by other patients having ECT. The support groups give us the opportunity to separate myth from fact and work toward dispelling stigma.
In some cases, ECT is recommended because medications, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), or other types of treatment have not been effective. For individuals with depression so severe that they have stopped eating or drinking or have become suicidal, ECT is often recommended as the first line of treatment. For family members of individuals facing these serious issues, ECT looks like the right option, but it can still be intimidating because there is anesthesia involved and there can be a side effect of memory loss. Again, our support groups offer a safe, open forum for people to address their concerns and learn everything they can about the treatment.
Another important aspect of ECT family support is that it encourages people to take care of themselves while they are taking care of their loved ones. Helping a family member with severe depression is an important, but stressful, full-time job.
In talking to families at McLean, we often hear about “caregiver fatigue.” Through our groups, we help caregivers optimize all of the support systems available to them inside and outside the hospital. We let them know that there’s a whole team of people who are here to help and support them through the ECT process.
Teresa Henderson, BSN, RN, is a staff nurse in the Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) Service at McLean Hospital, a leading ECT specialty center for over 60 years. To learn more about ECT, visit McLean’s Guide to ECT Treatment.
If you are concerned about your own well-being or that of a loved one, you can take an anonymous and confidential mental health screening online.