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Salt Lake man benefits from ECT therapy

By Ed Yeates  |  Posted Sep 16th, 2010 @ 10:33pm


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SALT LAKE CITY -- A Salt Lake City man battling lifelong depression has been given a long-overdue reprieve from an old and very misunderstood treatment.

Peter Cornish says he feels healthier now than he has in almost a decade.

"There is no silver bullet for mental illness, but this is as close as I've come," Cornish says.

There is no silver bullet for mental illness, but this is as close as I've come.

–Peter Cornish

Cornish has been on medication for depression for more than two decades. By last year, the illness got so bad he was running out of options; but now he's experiencing a dramatic turnaround.

At the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute, Cornish went through 10 sessions of electrical shock therapy, called ECT.

Unlike the horrific stereotype portrayed in movies like "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," this modernized, technically-polished treatment is painless. For some patients, it's also extremely effective.

With medication and anesthesia, the three to four second shock is administered. For the most part, the small 60 second-induced seizure is visible only in the hand and fingers.

In measuring mental illness on a scale of one to 10 -- one feeling the worst, and 10 the best -- Cornish's first treatment paid off.

"The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes," Cornish said. "I went in as a one. When I came out, I felt like I was a seven; it was that dramatic. The thing that really surprised me was once the treatment stopped, it kept improving."

What is... electroconvulsive therapy?
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure in which electric currents are passed through the brain, deliberately triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can immediately reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses. It is often used when other treatments are unsuccessful. Much of the stigma attached to ECT is based on early treatments in which high doses of electricity were administered without anesthesia. That stigma was bolstered by the 1975 film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" starring Jack Nicholson.

Cornish said now he rates his mental illness at an eight or nine -- a big leap from where he had fallen. In the depths of his depression, he knew what he was losing.

"I think with many physical illnesses you don't lose yourself. With mental illness, you lose yourself," Cornish said.

At those low points, Cornish hated to leave the house. He wouldn't answer the phone. Any social situation was extremely painful.

"I think one of the hardest things is the guilt of not being there emotionally for my wife and my boys," he said.

But not anymore -- as long as ECT holds up, working in combination with his medication. For some patients, initial treatments can last up to 18 months.

"Honestly now that it's all said and done, I think we wished we would have done it 10 years prior," said Cornish's wife, Ann.

Cornish is working actively now at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. His story and many like it are what NAMI volunteers want more people to understand and appreciate.

NAMIWalk 5k
Saturday, September 18th
Registration at 9 a.m.
Walk starts at 10 a.m.
Spring Mobile Ballpark
77 West 1300 South, Salt Lake City
NAMIWalk 5k

"I would love to think we would have a time, a day and place, where we would acknowledge that mental illness is very real and that we are all vulnerable," said Clinical psychologist Dr. Liz Hale.

With continual support from family and friends, the golden word "hope," as Cornish describes it, only gets stronger with each passing day.

Incidentally, NAMI is holding a fundraising walk this Saturday morning at 9:00 beginning at the Spring Mobile Ballpark.

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(The video of Peter receiving the electroconvulsive therapy was shot by the Cornish family for the Cornish family)

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