Junior medical students’ knowledge about and attitudes towards electroconvulsive therapy in a South African setting

Matthew B. Mausling, Muiruri Macharia, Gerhard P. Jordaan


Background: Although electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a safe and effective treatment modality with a long history of use in psychiatry, it remains controversial owing to misconceptions and negative attitudes among the public and medical profession. The aim of this study was to explore the state of knowledge and attitudes towards ECT among a sample of South African medical students.

Method: Prior to their theoretical psychiatry module, 131 second-year medical students responded to an anonymous online survey designed to assess the source and extent of their ECT knowledge as well as their attitude towards ECT and psychiatry in general.

Results: The Internet (46.6%) and TV and/or movies (30.5%) were the principal sources of knowledge of ECT while ‘professional publication’ was the least common (0%). The students’ attitudes towards psychiatry were generally positive and nearly one-third (29.8%) would consider specialising in the field. Overall, perception towards ECT was mixed, with many respondents approving of its use albeit only as a last resort. Notably, low ECT knowledge scores were associated with more negative attitudes towards this treatment modality and a lower perception of psychiatry as a medical speciality.

Conclusion: The findings indicate that for these students, media is the main source of ECT knowledge. While they are generally knowledgeable about ECT, they still harbour some misconceptions and negative attitudes about the treatment. Knowledge appears able to amend these attitudes, thus underlining the importance of integrating accurate information about ECT into the preclinical medical curriculum rather than leaving it to mass media to forge warped perceptions and attitudes for these future clinicians.


Electroconvulsive therapy; medical students; knowledge; attitudes

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/sajpsychiatry.v23i0.1062

Submitted: 12 September 2016
Published: 03 July 2017

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South African Journal of Psychiatry    |    ISSN: 1608-9685 (PRINT)    |    ISSN: 2078-6786 (ONLINE)