Thousands of patients with mental health issues, including teenagers, are being given electroconvulsive therapy despite links to brain damage.
Labour has branded it “deeply concerning” after Sunday Mirror figures revealed that 5,165 patients aged 16 to 98 were given the therapy between 2016 and 2018.
Although the exact number of children treated with it is not known, a report seen by the Sunday paper indicates one in six NHS trusts had used ECT on under-18s.
Barbara Keeley, shadow minister for mental mealth, said: “The use of electroconvulsive therapy on children and young people with mental health conditions by NHS trusts is deeply concerning and warrants immediate investigation by the government and NHS England. Even in adults this treatment ought to be a last resort.”
However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists defended the use of electroconvulsive therapy.
In a statement, it said: “Electroconvulsive therapy is a safe and effective treatment for many depressive illnesses, and it can act much faster than drugs. There is unmistakable evidence of this. Most people who receive ECT have much improved outcomes.
“ECT has been shown to be most effective to people at the more severe end of the spectrum.”
It said safety standards had much improved in recent years after it launched an accreditation service in 2003, which it said was “key to improving safety standards and effectiveness of how ECT in the UK is now the best in the world”.
The body said it was changing attitudes towards the therapy which it said was “historically poorly administered and badly misunderstood”.
But Dr Joanna Moncrieff, of University College London, is not convinced by the use of electroconvulsive therapy.
She told Sky News: “If ECT works at all it jolts people out of a state of depression temporarily, but there’s no evidence that it has long-term benefit and there is evidence it causes long-term memory problems and lasting damage.
“I think it’s not worthwhile in the vast majority of cases, if at all. We just don’t have enough research on what ECT does to the brain and the developing brain in younger people.
“We know it can cause permanent memory loss, so it suggests it may do permanent damage. We know younger brains are more vulnerable to drugs, for example, so they are likely to be more damaged by ECT.
“Giving it to younger people is a worry.”
Dr Sue Cunliffe hasn’t been able to work for 14 years since being given 21 shocks to treat her depression, without being offered any talking therapy first.
She told Sky News: “I was told I needed ECT because I had been on medication for depression and it didn’t seem to be working. They said it was my last hope.
“They failed to tell me the NICE guidelines recommend talking therapy before ECT.
“I was left severely brain damaged and battled for two years to get a diagnosis for the injury. Within two months of having talking therapy I was off the medication and stopped seeing psychiatrists.”
Dr Cunliffe said research showed some trusts were using ECT up to 12 times as much as others, leading her to question whether all trusts are using talking therapy before turning to ECT.
She said she went from being an able paediatrician to having “shaking hands, and falling over”.
Dr Cunliffe added: “I couldn’t do children’s primary homework, couldn’t count money, couldn’t recognise faces of friends I’d known for years. It wrecked my memory.”
She has not been able to work since and will not be able to work again, but Dr Cunliffe said she was “lucky” because she did manage to get the support and the diagnosis she needed.
She said: “I got input and support but most patients in my situation don’t get that.”
Professor John Read said: “This new development of giving ECT to people under 18 is extremely worrying.
“These brains are still developing.
“There’s been no research whatsoever into the efficacy or safety for children. The managers of the trusts need to rein in these psychiatrists immediately.”