BOSTON, MA – Since 1963, Katharine Dixon Dukakis, better known as “Kitty,” faithfully stood by the side of her husband, whom she had just married, who was just beginning what was to be a long and illustrious political career. His name, Michael Stanley Dukakis – a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1963 until 1971, Governor the state from 1975 to 1979 and again from 1983 to 1991, and the 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee. Only the second Greek-American governor in U.S. history – Spiro Agnew (MD) was the first – Dukakis arguably has eclipsed Agnew, who was Vice President of the United States from 1969 to 1973, as the most recognizable Greek-American politician of all time.
Throughout much of Dukakis’ political career, Kitty suffered – sometimes silently, sometimes inevitably in the public eye – with bouts of drug and alcohol abuse. Now that her husband is out of office, she is not only open about those abuses – which became public knowledge decades ago – but also about her depression and the revolutionary manner through which she treated it. In fact, she and the former governor publicly convey the magnificent benefits of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
“ECT unquestionably saved her life,” Governor Dukakis told the National Herald, regarding the therapy’s remarkable effects on his wife’s condition.
In an interview with Politico, Massachusetts’ former First Couple discuss the saga that has led to their sharing a promising emergence with the rest of the world.
Kitty voluntarily checked into Massachusetts General Hospital in June 2001 as “Jane Dee,” Politico reports, for treatment for severe depression. Thanks to ECT, she immediately felt much better – well enough, in fact, to join her husband in celebrating their 38th wedding anniversary the very next day.
There were negative stigmas attached to ECT, particularly made prevalent by the Oscar-winning 1975 film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Kitty herself told Politico she thought about it as she entered the hospital for her first treatment. But the Dukakises soon realized that despite perception, ECT was wonderfully successful. Accordingly, Kitty decided she no longer wanted to be anonymous. As Politico describes, “they had a platform to advocate a medical treatment that, despite its massive image problem, is widely credited with saving lives and setting patients once crippled with depression on the road to happy and productive futures.
“In the process, the Dukakises have found themselves to be the unexpected champions
of one of the most controversial and misunderstood – but highly effective – procedures
in modern medicine.”
In fact, Kitty is the one drawing the biggest crowds these days, her celebrity politician husband tells Politico. By comparison, “I only get polite applause – it’s pretty extraordinary.”
The addiction for Mrs. Dukakis started in the 1950s, when she began sneaking her mother’s “diet pills” a euphemism at the time for amphetamines, or speed, Politico reported.
The habit grew and it wasn’t until 1974 when Dukakis learned about it and asked her to stop. She tried, but couldn’t shake the habit for good. Kitty finally entered rehabilitation and kicked the habit eight years later.
But alcohol replaced the drugs, Politico wrote, which experts say is not uncommon for patients with depression to use both as self-medication.
She was able to temper her use of alcohol during Dukakis’ presidential campaign, but intensified her drinking after the election was over.
Nothing seemed to work, until ECT. As Politico describes, “an electroconvulsive therapy treatment is supposed to ‘reset’ the brain to disrupt the patient’s depression – kind of like rebooting a computer. With the patient under anesthesia, a small current of electricity is used to spark a grand mal seizure. Dr. Charles Welch, one of the nation’s top experts on ECT and Kitty’s psychiatrist, explains that the resulting seizure is the neurological equivalent of flicking on and off every light bulb in New York City three times in one second—a massive event that is supposed to jolt the brain back into its ‘normal’ state.
“About 80 percent of patients who do a series of ECT – which could range from six to 12 treatments given over a series of weeks – go into remission. It has the highest remission rate of any of the treatments that exist for depression, says Dr. Sarah Lisanby, the chair of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at the Duke University School of Medicine.
“Like other chronic medical conditions, that remission is not often permanent. Patients typically go on anti-depressant medication after treatment and have follow up ECT treatments when signs of depression return. Lisanby and other psychiatrists say that the biggest challenge facing ECT now is figuring out how to make that remission more permanent.”
Kitty has traveled all over the country singing the praises of ECT and next year plans to appear for the second time at an ECT conference in Scandinavia, Politico reports, where that therapy is more widely accepted than in the United States.
“I can’t imagine what life would have been like without ECT,” she tells Politico. “It really saved my life.”
“ECT is becoming an increasingly accepted treatment for depression, and, in fact, is by far the most effective treatment for severe depression there is. It is relatively quick and painless,” Dukakis told TNH. “Sometimes just one series of five or six treatments takes care of the problem for the long term. In other cases like Kitty’s, she now has ECT maintenance – one treatment once a month, and she takes no medication, which never helped her anyway.
“She now chairs an ECT support group,” the governor continued, “speaks at grand rounds at hospitals all over the country, and is the co-author of the book, Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy, which is widely used and recommended by psychiatrists to their patients.
As another presidential election approaches, Dukakis, a firsthand veteran of presidential politics, would like mental health brought to the forefront. “I certainly hope the candidates for the presidency will be talking seriously about mental health during the campaign.”
It is not, and should not, be a political issue, Dukakis believes, yet one that all politicians should address. “There is nothing partisan about mental illness. Now, with the passage by the Congress of both the Affordable Care Act and Mental Health Parity, which requires insurers to cover mental health just the way they cover all other kinds of health, we could be on the threshold of a huge breakthrough in mental health services in this country.”