Half a century of ECT use in young people

Am J Psychiatry. 1997 May;154(5):595-602. doi: 10.1176/ajp.154.5.595.


Objective: Pharmacological treatments for certain psychiatric disorders in young people are often ineffective and may cause major side effects; thus, it is important to investigate other treatments. This article reviews the literature on the efficacy and safety of ECT in this age group and examines the evidence for the suggestion that it may be used inappropriately.

Method: All studies published in English and other languages on the use of ECT in persons 18 years of age or younger were obtained. The reports were systematically reviewed and rated according to the quality of the information in several domains, yielding an overall quality score for each study. Individual cases from each report were then examined and grouped according to diagnosis and response to ECT.

Results: Sixty reports describing ECT in 396 patients were identified; most (63%) were single case reports. The overall quality was poor but improved in the more recent studies. There were no controlled trials. Rates of improvement across studies were 63% for depression, 80% for mania, 42% for schizophrenia, and 80% for catatonia. Serious complications were very rare, whereas minor, transient side effects appeared common.

Conclusions: ECT in the young seems similar in effectiveness and side effects to ECT in adults. However, this conclusion is qualified by the lack of systematic evidence. More research and education of professionals and the public are needed. It is suggested that ECT registers be set up, that surveys and controlled trials be conducted, and that seizure thresholds, the optimal anesthetic, effects of concurrent medications, and cognitive consequences of ECT in the young be investigated.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Bipolar Disorder / therapy
  • Catatonia / therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy / adverse effects
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Schizophrenia / therapy
  • Treatment Outcome