G asks: “My dearest childhood friend is in the psychiatric ward of her local hospital, receiving electroconvuslive therapy (ECT) as treatment for her decades-long struggle with deep depression, for which psychotherapy and medication offered little to no relief. . . .
“I’m horrified, as my imagination goes wild with popular culture’s portrayal of ‘electro-shock treatment.’ Attempts to allay my fears by doing online research failed. Badly. It really does seem as wonky and risky as I’d thought (in the sense that its benefits are questionable, at best, and the data regarding the negative impact to one’s memory is well-established). Does Catholic teaching have anything to say about such treatment? Am I justified in my concerns?”
I believe you are justified in your concerns because this treatment remains controversial, although it is very much improved from what it was back in the 1940s.
What was once known as “shock treatment” is called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and is a procedure that involves the passage of small electric currents through the brain in order to trigger a seizure. Performed under general anesthesia, this treatment causes changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of some mental illnesses and is often used when other treatments are unsuccessful.
The Mayo Clinic addresses the issues you refer to about the popular opinion of “electro-shock treatments”:
“Much of the stigma attached to ECT is based on early treatments in which high doses of electricity were administered without anesthesia, leading to memory loss, fractured bones and other serious side effects.
“ECT is much safer today. Although ECT still causes some side effects, it now uses electric currents given in a controlled setting to achieve the most benefit with the fewest possible risks.”
Mental Health America is more strident in its warnings about possible side effects which include permanent memory loss and confusion.
It also stresses that the effectiveness of ECT is still in question.
“In some cases, the numbers are extremely favorable, citing 80 percent improvement in severely depressed patients, after ECT. However, other studies indicate that the relapse is high, even for patients who take medication after ECT. Some researchers insist that no study proves that ECT is effective for more than four weeks.”
However, ECT is not connected in any way to the New Age.
As for Church teaching on this subject, it was mentioned as a potential treatment option by Aaron D. Kheriaty in the book A Catholic Guide to Depression which you can read on Google books. You may want to peruse this book for more information.