Research Article| Volume 9, ISSUE 6, P882-891, November 2016

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Based on a True Story? The Portrayal of ECT in International Movies and Television Programs

  • Pascal Sienaert
    Corresponding author. Fax: 0032 2 759 53 80.
    KU Leuven – University of Leuven, University Psychiatric Center KU Leuven, Academic Center for ECT and Neuromodulation (AcCENT), Leuvensesteenweg 517, 3070 Kortenberg, Belgium
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      • In movies, the main indication for ECT is behavioral correction or torture.
      • In series, the most frequent indication for the use of ECT is erasing memories.
      • In the majority of scenes unmodified bitemporal ECT is depicted.
      • Coercive ECT is shown more frequently in American movies and series than in movies and series from other countries.
      • Truthful portrayals of ECT are rare: in 11% of scenes, the way ECT is portrayed reflects the practice in the corresponding time period.



      Movies and television (TV) programs are an important source of public information about ECT.


      To narratively review the portrayal of ECT in international movies and TV programs from 1948 until present.


      Several Internet movie databases and a database of phrases appearing in movies and TV programs were searched, supplemented with a Medline-search. No language restrictions were applied.


      ECT was portrayed in 52 movies (57 scenes), 21 TV programs (23 scenes), and 2 animated sitcoms (2 scenes). In movies, the main indication for ECT is behavioral control or torture (17/57, 29.8%), whereas in TV programs, the most frequent indication is erasing memories (7/25, 28%). In most scenes (47/82; 57.3%) ECT is given without consent, and without anesthesia (59/82; 72%). Unmodified ECT is depicted more frequently in American scenes (48/64, 75%), as opposed to scenes from other countries (11/18; 64.7%). Bilateral electrode placement is used in almost all (89%, 73/82) scenes. The vast majority of movies (46/57, 80.7%) and TV programs (18/25, 72%) show a negative and inaccurate image of the treatment.


      In the majority of scenes, ECT is used as a metaphor for repression, mind and behavior control, and is shown as a memory-erasing, painful and damaging treatment, adding to the stigma already associated with ECT. Only a few exceptions paint a truthful picture of this indispensable treatment in modern psychiatry.


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