Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Electroconvulsive therapy: ‘phenomenally helpful’ or ‘the most barbaric treatment’?

John Adams
Faculty of Nursing & Midwifery, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Jack Nicholson in
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest*
In my paper: ‘British nurses’ attitudes to electroconvulsivetherapy, 1945 – 2000’, I set out to assemble and discuss some of the evidence relating to this controversial topic. It is not the role of the historian to provide a definitive answer to this conundrum – that is a task for the clinical sciences – but it is rather to reconstruct and analyse the views held in the chosen period of study.

History advances ever closer to this goal through the medium of debates amongst historians. There is no agreed answer to the question: ‘was Oliver Cromwell a great statesman or a homicidal fanatic?’, but debates between historians taking opposing views bring us closer to the real man. So in my paper I hope to stimulate such a debate among those with an interest in the history of mental health nursing. Key questions include: ‘Did British nurses’ attitudes to ECT change over time?’, ‘What influence did the anti-psychiatry movement have on them?’, and ‘Did nurse educators rise to the challenge of preparing students adequately?’. In addition, I also hope to promote a greater focus on the history of mental health nursing in general, which is currently a neglected area of research. Peter Nolan, Claire Chatterton and Niall McCrae have made pioneering contributions, but numerous areas remain to be explored from a scholarly perspective. There is also an urgent need for mental health nurses to contribute oral history accounts of their views and experiences. The RCN Archive in Edinburgh holds a major collection of such material from current and retired nurses, but only a tiny fraction of the recordings and documents relate to mental health care. We need to beat the grim reaper and archive this material before it is too late.


Adams J (2015) British nurses’ attitudes to electroconvulsivetherapy, 1945 – 2000, Journal of Advanced Nursing doi: 10.1111/jan.12704

* the film of the book by Ken Casey features electroconvulsive therapy

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