TODAY   |  August 20, 2013

Electroshock no longer taboo to treat mental illness

Each year, some 100,000 Americans turn to electroconvulsive therapy, also known as electroshock, to treat mental illnesses. While many say it more effective than antidepressants, medical experts warn memory loss can be a side effect. NBC’s Mara Schiavocampo reports.

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>> story, electro shock therapy . one seen as a barbaric procedure. mara schiavocampo has more.

>>> you maybe surprised to learn that an estimated 100,000 americans undergo the procedure every year and for many the experience is much different than what you might think. these are the imagines often associated with we electroshock therapy . portrayed by hollywood as painful, violent and archaic. but for denise stewart the experience was life saving .

>> there would be voices in my head that would sit there and see denise, see the knife in the kitchen, cut your wrist. see those pills over there? take all the pills.

>> reporter: when antidepressant antidepressants made her condition worse her doctors turned to ect.

>> if it hadn't been for the electroconvulsive therapy i wouldn't be alive right now.

>> reporter: they're transforming it into a widely accepted treatment for depression and bipolar disorders .

>> ect is now recognized as an effective treatment as opposed to something barbaric and invasive and has damaging effects to patients.

>> reporter: just last week simon winchester spoke out on our show about his own ect experience.

>> electroconvulsive therapy sig sig sigmatized as it maybe does work.

>> it lasts a few seconds each. patients are debated and don't feel a thing and doctors say it's sometimes more effective than antidepressant medications.

>> 70 to 80% of people respond favorably and in some cases have a complete remission of symptoms.

>> reporter: but there's negative side effects such as memory loss . something stewart admits struggling with. but still the therapy brought her and her family a sense of hope.

>> i'm showing my kids the way life should be. i'm showing them that there is recovery from mental illness. life is much better. i have life now. i didn't have life before.

>> ect is backed by the american psychiatric association , the american medical association and the surgeon-general and experts also say that for some patients it could be the difference between being institutionalized and leading a normal life . good morning to you.

>> hey, matt.

>> there's people that just watched that say it's effective and can be life changing but i still can't get past the stigma.

>> we can't get past the stigma of the visuals from movies and the fact that you consider modern medicine . but time and time again if you look at patients with severe depression that don't respond to medication, they'll tell you that ect works. it's not something like the american medical association is keeping in just to dig it's heels in. they're saying it works, it's safe, therefore we should still do it.

>> is it a one time thing or do patient versus to keep going back?

>> it depends. most patients will have a series of a few and see how they do but mara pointed to the most important thing which is short-term memory loss is real. some people will have that.

>> but you will regain the memory?

>> sometimes yes, sometimes no. you won't lose the memory of who you are or what you have done in life but you may forget what you had for dinner.

>> but that can be a major side effect for people.

>> but then you have your days activities to come and replenish it. i give it. there's nothing that we give them in the psychiatric world that doesn't have a side effect . medications included.

>> forget the diagnosis. you say it work with bipolar and depression. what about the patient in terms of age, gender? does that matter?

>> well, increasingly we started looking at preadolescents, adolescen adolescents. for years it was just adults. but as we try to figure out obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar and depression. when medications don't work, we talked about medicinal marijuana in the past. i think the whole body has to be stretched. i'm not pro ect. i'm pro using things correctly when nothing else works.

>> in specific circumstances.

>> doctors will always try medication first but if it means institutionalizing someone versus a real life i say yes.

>> this is a last resort.

>> it's never a first line resort but does it work? yes. i've seen it work.

>> thanks. savannah.

>> now to a new survey getting a lot of attention for what it reveals about women in the work place. it was conducted by elle