A new study challenges the notion that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can prevent suicide. The researchers found that after receiving ECT, patients were still almost 45 times more likely to die by suicide than people in the general population.
“The 2-year suicide risk of patients having received treatment with ECT is highly elevated compared with sex- and age-matched individuals from the general population,” the researchers write.
However, they add, this extremely high rate of suicide after a treatment that is supposedly very effective for suicide prevention is “to be expected considering the severity of the mental disorders treated with ECT.” Despite this conclusion, the researchers did not actually obtain any data about the severity of the mental health symptoms of the patients in the current study.
Another important finding was that the risk of dying by suicide was especially elevated for people who were already suicidal—the target demographic for ECT. The researchers note that people who had a history of suicide attempts or self-harm were more than four times as likely to die by suicide than those who received ECT without that history. This indicates that ECT does not have a special suicide prevention effect for the people most at risk, either.
ECT is a controversial procedure that involves electrocuting the brain to induce seizures deliberately. There is no consensus on how this might reduce mental health problems. The procedure results in adverse cognitive effects that can last for months or even years, including persistent memory loss in over a third of patients.