Inside ECT Treatment: Woman tries to end shock therapy stigma

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RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- When most people hear the term 'shock therapy,' they think of archaic images straight out of the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

But in truth, the once-controversial treatment has come a long way in saving lives.

A local woman has been struggling to end that stigma.

For Lyndhurst native and longtime Cleveland comedian, Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, each day is a small miracle.

Her hilarious on-stage persona masks a much darker past, that first came to a head in 1999.

“Three days before I graduated, I attempted to kill myself. I drove my car over an embankment, like 200 feet, and I ended up surviving,” Mendlowitz told FOX 8 News reporter Autumn Ziemba.

Her road since that day has been full of twists and turns, with crippling depression that often led to more suicidal thoughts.

For Mendlowitz, medication provided little relief and a slew of side effects.

“(Medication) wasn’t working and so (my doctors) suggested electroconvulsive therapy, which is, in the vernacular, known as shock therapy. And I was at a point where I’m either gonna try this or I’m gonna end my life,” she explained.

Under the care of doctors and nurses in the psychiatry department at University Hospitals Richmond Medical Center, Mendlowitz has undergone 32 electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments since the fall of 2013.

Memory tests and IVs have now become her norm.

But sadly, so has the stigma surrounding her illness.

"I think because it's in the brain--it's this thing that you can't see a physical result. If depression came with a broken limb, you know, people would go, 'oh okay, this is real,'” Mendlowitz said. "So much of that guilt and shame and stigma, it just feeds the disease."

Images from TV and movies only add fuel to the fire, confusing the truth of shock therapy.

Mendlowitz has seen it time and time again, when telling people about her ECT treatments.

“They’ll be like, ’they still do that?’ because they think of it as this barbaric treatment,” she said. "The only experience people know of shock therapy is 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' and so, this is this horrible portrayal of it, and today, it's a totally different experience."

“ECT has changed a lot since then,” said Dr. Keming Gao, head of University Hospitals ECT Department.

Gao said the treatment has matured since it was first developed in 1938, to become a safe and effective option that is no longer considered a last line of defense.

“ECT is a life-saving procedure for a lot of people,” Gao said. “Now we call them modified ECT, which means we give patients anesthetics for them to sleep and also give them a muscle relaxant.”

Mendlowitz receives what is known as bilateral ECT. That means Dr. Gao uses two electrode paddles to deliver a charge of 800 microamps into her brain.

In truth, Gao saod, the current is not even enough to power a lightbulb.

"We artificially give the patients electricity, activate a part of the brain. The neurons kind of start to spread to other places and there is a generalized seizure," Gao explained.

He said depending on the patient, the seizure will last anywhere from 20 to 40 seconds.

Researchers believe this electric charge hits a "reset button" in the brain, causing a release of chemicals that allow neurons to form new connections.

The result is usually very positive.

“Majority of people, they go back to hundred percent normal,” Gao explained. “(But) everything’s not perfect. You have to ask yourself, what is the risk and the benefit?”

“It’s taken from me a lot of the memories from the last few years of my life, and that’s been hard,” Mendlowitz said.

Memory loss is one of the most common side effects of bilateral ECT.

The loss has become a distinct challenge for the writer and comedian.

"There's a lot of talk of comedy and depression. A lot of comedians have dealt with depression," she said. "I think for me, comedy, in a lot of ways, was a saving thing, because it was something that I was still able to access, even when stuff was really bad."

Mendlowitz said she also copes by turning to her blog, titled "Funnel Cakes Not Included"--a marriage of comedy and depression that she recently turned into her first one-act play.

After rave reviews in Cleveland, the show is now on a college tour.

“The amount of kids ending their lives by suicide--it’s growing. There’s a way to change it. And the way to change it is to take away the isolation. And the way to do that is to end stigma and reach out,” she said.

With a relapse rate of 50 percent, Mendlowitz has no idea how long she will have to undergo ECT.

But right now, her goal is simple: to get through another treatment; and to smile, laugh and live.

And of course, to end the stigma.

"A lot of times people use the word 'brave,' like, 'oh, this is so brave of you.' And I want that to not be a thing. I want it to be so okay to talk about, that people don't think it's brave to talk about depression."