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Controversial therapy helps couple deal with her long-term depression


For 17 years, Kitty Dukakis suffered bouts of paralyzing depression that would strike every eight to 10 months like clockwork and last three or four months.

Even though she had some of the best doctors in Boston and an ever-changing regimen of medication, the wife of Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts, 1988 presidential candidate and now UCLA visiting professor of public policy, could not escape her recurring nightmare.

Today, Kitty Dukakis has pieced her life back together, thanks to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), considered by many mental health practitioners as the option of last resort when medication and psychotherapy fail. Because ECT carries a significant stigma, the Dukakises have gone public to tell others of its merits.

"ECT has been what Mike calls a miracle in our lives," said Kitty during a recent talk held in Louis Jolyon Auditorium and sponsored by the Nathanson Family Resource Center, the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital and Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "I keep wondering why a treatment that has a 70% to 80% success rate in some of the toughest cases isn't tried more often." Her appearance came one day after she had ECT at the Resnick hospital as an outpatient.

"If it hadn't been for electroconvulsive therapy, I am not sure whether Kitty would be here today," her husband said solemnly.

Copyright © Photo by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo

ECT, which has been around since the 1940s, fell into great disfavor after films such as "Snake Pit," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "A Beautiful Mind" scared people away from "shock treatment."

Even today, Michael said, "when I tell people that Kitty is having ECT, they recoil. To them, it's all about Jack Nicholson." Public opposition was so strong that the city of Berkeley once declared itself an ECT-free zone. The therapy is still not available in many public health-care facilities.

To help people see it as an appropriate and relatively benign treatment, Kitty Dukakis wrote a 2006 book with medical writer Larry Tye, "Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy," and has become a leading patient advocate for this therapy.

Doctors still do not know why delivery of a small amount of electrical energy to the brain — enough to elicit a very brief seizure — works. Explained UCLA psychiatrist Randall Espinoza, director of the ECT Program at the Resnick hospital, "It's like rebooting a computer," reorganizing a brain that's out of rhythm. The patient feels nothing, because he or she receives general anesthesia and a muscle relaxant, and only receives about 100 joules or less over two to four seconds (compared to as many as 360 joules for cardiac defibrillation).

While it does not cure her depression, Kitty said ECT provides her with relief at the onset of it. Mild short-term memory loss is her only complaint (some have experienced long-term memory loss and cognitive problems).

"If that is the price I have to pay for feeling well, I'll do so gladly," she said. "The quicker I can get myself back into treatment, the better I know I will be."

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