Alternatives to Electroconvulsive Therapy

shock-treatment-on-a-manElectroconvulsive therapy, sometimes called shock treatment, has been the subject of controversy for generations. Decades ago, ECT was sometimes administered involuntarily, but current ECT treatments are voluntary and much safer. ECT is one of the most effective treatments for treatment-resistant depression, but its results are unpredictable and the side effects can be troubling. Some people, for example, experience long-term memory loss after undergoing ECT.

Fortunately, if you’re experiencing treatment-resistant depression, ECT is only the most popular option, not the only one. Something as simple as a new therapist or medication could make a big difference, and if those don’t work, there are several other ways to compel your brain to stop making you feel depressed.

New Treatment Plan

ECT and treatments like it are therapies of last resort. If you’ve tried only one medication or therapist, it’s not time to give up just yet. Instead, try modifying your treatment plan or treatment team. If you’re doing interpersonal therapy, for example, you might try switching to a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. If your medication isn’t working or the side effects are too much to tolerate, it’s time to switch to something else. Educate yourself before you choose a treatment team, and ensure that the methods your treatment team is using have been proven effective.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation

A vagus nerve stimulator is a lot like a pacemaker for your brain. The device has to be surgically implanted, and uses tiny electrical shocks to stimulate your vagus nerve. This treatment has been used for years in people with epilepsy, and some doctors are now using it in people with depression. Studies are inconclusive about its effectiveness, but if you want to avoid ECT, VNS can be a less frightening option.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses an electrical coil to produce electrical activity in a targeted area of the brain. The effects are similar to ECT because TMS electrically stimulates the brain, but preliminary studies indicate that there might be fewer side effects with TMS. However, the Food and Drug Administration advised against the marketing of a TMS device in 2007, arguing that it had not been proven effective.

Experimental Treatments

Experimental treatments are not currently available or are available only to those participating in treatment studies. However, in a few years, some of these treatments might be available to the general public:

  • Some studies have indicated that ketamine—a veterinary tranquilizer that is sometimes used recreationally—may help alleviate symptoms of depression and some other mental health conditions.
  • Magnetic seizure therapy is similar to ECT because it induces a seizure in the brain. It does not, however, require an electric current to be administered directly to the brain.
  • Deep brain stimulation has shown promise in the treatment of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s. Much like vagus nerve stimulation, deep brain stimulation works by implanting a device in the brain that sends electrical impulses to areas of the brain that affect mood.


  1. Brief summary from the neurological devices panel meeting. (2007, January 26). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from
  2. Hampton, T. (2006). Ketamine for depression. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association296(12), 1458-1458. doi: 10.1001/jama.296.12.1458-a
  3. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2011, August 23). Treatment-resistant depression. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from
  4. Treatment-resistant depression. (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment

    July 11th, 2013 at 11:42 PM


  • ed

    July 12th, 2013 at 5:03 AM

    wasn’t even sure that ect was even around anymore]
    sort of just thought that everything today would be an alternative to that treatment that feels so outdated

  • Charlene

    July 12th, 2013 at 6:34 PM

    I had ECT treatments and it was a last ditch effort to insure my survival because my depression was so bad that suicide had become my only option. I think ECT may have saved my life but it came with a huge cost–severe and permanent memory loss. I still have trouble with cognitive functioning to this day. I wish I wouldn’t have had the treatments but at least I have no desire to kill myself any more…at all!

  • Julia

    July 13th, 2013 at 4:59 AM

    @ Daniel- I have always read about stuff like this too and wondered how they could eb used for a solution.

    However I think that if this was happening to me or to a family memeber whom I loved, I would at least consider some of the options, even if they were kind of tried as a last resort. They wouldn’t be the first thing that I woudl think of, and I would probably go running in the other direction if working with a therapist who suggested these treatments from the start. But it is nice to know that there are some alternative options that many of us don’t know about or give much thought to, and these have actually shown great potential with patients in the past.

  • irina

    July 13th, 2013 at 11:40 PM

    more options is always better than limited method may work for a few people but not others.and depending on the severity and individual requirements the methodology may need to be although these treatment may not sound like the best or the least invasive they are life saving options nevertheless.and we should all respect that.

  • Cheryl Prax

    July 14th, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    BTW ECT is still given against people’s will.

    ECT causes permanent brain damage and should be banned.
    Peter Breggin MD latest info.

  • Heather

    October 7th, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    I am on my second series of ECT treatments. Both, very successful, and I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have them. I’m sure everyone’s experiences are different, but it’s definitely something that shouldn’t be left out of options and has saved my life.

  • Marilyn T

    September 2nd, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    Our daughter just had her 12th ECT because of psychosis. Doctor just called and said they were no doing anymore as they are nit helping. Don’t knkw what to do.,we need help to bring our child back.

  • Petard

    June 21st, 2020 at 2:59 AM

    Modern ECT is safe if given for the right condition(S). All the buzz from the enemies is all fake news!

  • Jeff

    December 29th, 2021 at 4:05 PM

    I appreciate the comments from those persons here. I wish very much to explore and hopefully receive ECT treatments. I feel I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

  • Jeff

    September 1st, 2023 at 12:56 AM

    A big thank you to GoodTherapy for providing this space. I realize it is not a space for diagnosis, professional advice, medical treatment or therapy but a forum for persons who wish to explore the possibilities and benefits of ECT and from those persons who have underdone ECT. The pros, I find, outnumber the cons. The 1975 film, “One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest” was an injustice to the benefits and good ECT provides. How I wish others would share personal experiences and thoughts of ECT.

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