One million people in Australia have depression, two million have anxiety, and many have both.
Most individuals who seek treatment for depression recover. Because our brain is continually being moulded and has an incredible capacity to change, psychotherapy (talk therapy) is a proven and effective treatment. As we change our thoughts and behaviours, over time our feelings start to change too. Some people need medication to give their brain a bit of help while they go through the process. The good news is, in Australia 3/4 of those who see a GP for mental illness make a full recovery.
But for some people, like me, medications and talk therapy just aren’t enough. I’ve had depression for sixteen years, seen more counsellors/psychologists that I can count since and have been on medication for over eight years. The medication helps and a lifetime of talk therapy has meant I am high-functioning – I’m not a particularly negative person – I regularly practice mindfulness and have a plethora of strategies that I use in my everyday life… But despite all this, I still struggle with a chronically depressed mood, called dysthymia and recurrent Major Depressive Episodes, which means I go through stages of Double Depression. In a way, I thought I was destined to be depressed…
…until about nine months ago, when I heard about a treatment for chronic/medication-resistant depression called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (or TMS). So I started researching about this treatment that was foreign to me – what is TMS? Was I eligible to try it? How could I access the treatment? What are the side effects? How effective is it?
What is TMS?
The way I understand it, is that it is similar to ECT in the sense it uses an external source – in this case, a coil that repeatedly emits a magnetic field – to stimulate brain activity. Unlike ECT, it does not require aesthetic, cause a seizure and doesn’t have the cognitive side effects.
The magnet at the centre of the coil taps very fast on a specific point on my head – for me, it’s 40 taps in about 7 seconds, repeated 125 times on the left side. It takes 41 minutes. There will be a blue/purple spot permanently on my head while I’m undergoing my first treatment.
As it taps, the magnet stimulates the nerves in the frontal cortex, which is the part of the pain in charge of our logical thinking. The hope is to minimise the effects of depression by stimulating these nerves and increasing blood flow in that area of the brain.
Who eligible for TMS?
TMS is for people with medication-resistant depression (yup! That’s me!) or those who are unable to take anti-depressants.
However, it’s not recommended or suitable for those diagnosed with epilepsy, have had a stroke, are pregnant or have implants that would be affected by a magnetic field, such as surgical clips, cardiac pacemakers, implanted medication pumps.
How do you access TMS?
Unfortunately, in Australia TMS does not have Medicare number (yet) and it needs to be applied consecutively for a prescribed number of days – which means you have to undergo TMS as an inpatient.
The best way to access TMS in Australia is to find a hospital that offers it as a treatment, make an appointment with a psychiatrist who has admittance rights and does TMS and ensure you have private health insurance with psychiatric hospital cover.
Although it can be inconvenient to take time off from work and/or away from home, most hospitals also offer group therapy, education, access to allied health professionals, art therapy and lifestyle advice. This holistic approach has proven effective and is a vital part of recovery for the patients who participate and take advantages of all the treatment options available while undergoing TMS.
How effective is it and what are the side effects?
When I was looking at all my options with my psychiatrist my conclusion is this: it may work, but it is just as likely not to work – it seems like a 50/50 gamble. Statistically, it’s not as effective as ECT and there is no way of telling how a person will respond to the treatment until they try it.
However, it has far fewer risks and side effects than ECT or going through another medication change. The only side effects are tiredness and in some cases, a headache. Yep – that’s it! And it has made me very sleepy!
For me then, the only risk is a financial one, but three weeks in a hospital, undergoing group therapy and focusing on my health would be good for me, even if the TMS didn’t work. So, I have approached the treatment optimistic, but without expectation.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a permanent treatment, but I’ve been speaking to many others who have said TMS changed their lives and have been more than willing to return for their ‘top ups.’
…here I am. I’ve been prescribed 20 TMS treatments, one a day and in-between number 14 and 15. Three days ago I noticed a difference – for the first time in my life, I feel like I have a choice and safe in my head.
The best way I can describe the change in my mind is;
what had always felt like a dark, dense, damp forest with a narrow path and dangerous creatures waiting behind every tree to attack,
now it feels like a spacious, open, colourful meadow on a cloudless day with the freedom to go wherever I want, without fear.
And I am only 3/4 of the way through. I still have six treatments left – Praise God!
I confess, I’m a little upset I’ll have to keep my private health insurance (it’s not cheap). However, it’s a small price to pay for a treatment that has the potential to greatly increase my quality of life.
So, I’m going to embrace this new addition to my life and continue to Praise God for His goodness and perfect plan.