A rabble-rousing patient on a psychiatric ward is brought into a room and strapped to a gurney. He is being punished for his defiance of the head nurse’s sadistic authority. As he lies fully awake, the psychiatrist and other staff members place electrodes on both sides of his head and pass a quick jolt of electricity between them. Several orderlies hold the patient down while he grimaces in pain, thrashes uncontrollably and lapses into a stupor.
This scene from the 1975 Academy Award–winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Jack Nicholson as the rebellious patient, has probably shaped the general public’s perceptions of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) far more than any scientific description. As a result, many laypeople regard ECT as a hazardous, even barbaric, procedure. Yet most data suggest that when properly administered, ECT is a relatively safe and often beneficial last-resort treatment for severe depression, among other forms of mental illness.