Electroconvulsive Therapy Machine

Mental health treatment in Texas’s state hospitals

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Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly called electroshock therapy, is used to treat mental health conditions like severe or treatment-resistant depression, severe mania, catatonia, and some symptoms of dementia. Invented in Italy in the late 1930s, ECT was being used in the State of Texas’s mental health hospitals by the early 1940s. Today, all ECT treatments performed within the State hospital system are done at Terrell State Hospital.

Electroconvulsive therapy involves sending a small electrical current through the brain, intentionally triggering a controlled seizure that lasts less than one minute. While ECT has proven to be an effective treatment, the medical community is not sure why, exactly, it works. It is known that ECT changes chemical aspects of the brain, which in turn may improve the way brain cells communicate with each other, help new brain cells form, or help increase the amount of good chemicals in the brain. These chemical changes often lead to long-term positive results for patients.

Prior to the invention of ECT in the 1930s, doctors chemically induced seizures to treat mental health conditions but with dangerous side effects. ECT was introduced as a safer and more effective alternative, but it too came at a cost. Patients had to be physically restrained, felt pain from the seizure and the electrical current, and suffered from soreness, headaches, memory loss, and disorientation during recovery. Many mental health facilities stopped providing it in the 1970s.

Several changes were implemented to make ECT safer and less traumatic for patients, and it was reimplemented in hospitals in the 1980s. Today, treatments take about five minutes and recovery time is almost immediate. Lower doses of electricity are used, patients undergo a full physical exam and are given general anesthesia and muscle relaxants, and their heart rate and brain activity are monitored throughout the treatment. During a treatment, the only physical indication of a seizure can be seen in the patient’s foot — a blood pressure cuff is placed around one ankle to stop the muscle relaxant from entering the foot, which allows doctors to monitor seizure activity.

In 2022, students of the History Department at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, conducted oral history interviews with nurse Bobby Coates from Rusk State Hospital and Dr. Mark Messer from Terrell State Hospital about ECT. Listen to excerpts of their interviews on the Bullock Museum YouTube Channel.

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Electroconvulsive Therapy Machine Artifact from Terrell, Texas
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