Kitty Dukakis is a passionate advocate of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a treatment she says allowed her six years ago to overcome clinical depression that had also triggered alcoholism and drug abuse. She believes shock therapy returned her life to her.
“When Michael came into my room after my first treatment, I was smiling. I hadn’t smiled for a long, long time. He said, ‘I’m seeing a miracle’,” she recalled. Mrs. Dukakis, who has long ties to the Vineyard, is married to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
Since receiving shock therapy and entering addiction recovery, Mrs. Dukakis has devoted herself to helping others. She found many outstretched hands in her Island audience of about 60 people on Wednesday night.
She told her story to a mostly female audience at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven.
In her presentation, part of the Vineyard Haven library’s fall lecture series, she spoke about a broken U.S. health care system and the need for practicing psychiatrists to educate themselves about shock therapy.
With former Boston Globe medical writer Larry Tye, last year Ms. Dukakis, who is 68, authored Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy. On Wednesday evening she spoke with passion, humor and clarity about her escape from clinical depression and substance abuse. Last month, the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain opened a new addiction treatment center for women in Mrs. Dukakis’s name.
Debunking popular conceptions of early shock therapy was a principal theme in her address.
“Electroconvulsive therapy was introduced in 1938 and today’s treatment is very different from the one popularized 33 years ago by the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” she said, referring to the book by Ken Kesey which was also made into a motion picture.
“I want to provide a different lens for perspective on ECT,” she said, adding: “Larry Tye asked to be present during my ECT treatments. While sitting next to me during treatment, Larry asked the doctor when the procedure would begin. The doctor told him we finished 10 minutes ago,” she said. ”The only physical manifestation was that one of my big toes moved up and down a few times,” she recalled.
Research comparing the effects of shock therapy treatment with talk therapy and antidepressants has shown shock therapy helpful in 70 to 80 per cent of patients, while talk therapy and antidepressant treatments are successful in 50 per cent of patients, she said. Side effects include some loss of experiential memory around the treatment period, Mrs. Dukakis said. But she said the tradeoff for her enhanced quality of life is incalculable. She said treatment takes less than two hours, including an electrocardiogram and blood pressure reading before receiving a muscle relaxant prior to treatment.
Mrs. Dukakis has been traveling worldwide and in U.S. hospitals and centers to observe shock therapy treatment. “Europe is way ahead of us, particularly Scandinavia. The country most open to ECT was Egypt,” she said.
She also said: “Our health care system is broken, badly broken, particularly related to mental illness. We need better Medicaid coverage and improved treatment standards by the American Psychiatric Association. We have too few pediatricians in the U.S. and fewer well-trained in mental illness and they are being flooded with mental illness in young people. We are smug and arrogant, particularly in the East, about the quality of our medical care. The best ECT facility I’ve seen is in South Dakota. They have a better human behavior unit than we have in Boston,” she said. She said that insurance does cover treatments, though Medicaid pays less than for other mental illness therapies.
Mrs. Dukakis took questions for nearly half an hour, truncated by the need to catch the last ferry off the Island.
And since she was speaking in a place which has documented high rates of depression, there naturally were many questions. Mrs. Dukakis pledged her ongoing involvement.
“I am well aware that the opportunities for treatment are way down from where they were 25 years ago. I will continue to advocate for folks to understand that this problem has not gone away,” she said.