Patients seek ‘last resort’ alternatives to treat depression
SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine you have clinical depression. You’ve spent years trying all sorts of talk therapies and dozens of medications. Yet, the bad, foggy thoughts – including suicidal ones – just won’t go away.
There is still hope in the forms of alternative, lesser known treatments for depression right here in Utah. One is “magnetic therapy.”
Peter Cornish, 60, of Murray has spent his entire adult life-fighting depression.
“I don’t know how many episodes I’ve had, but I’m sure it’s over 20,” he said. “Most of them have lasted three months.”
Cornish struggled to get out of bed. His anxiety soared. By 2008, Cornish had to retire from his career in IT and software testing.
“That’s when I was losing hope,” he said. “I had been on a broad spectrum of different meds over the years and they weren’t working for me. So, that’s why we decided to try ECT.”
Electroconvulsive therapy was the last resort for Cornish. Understandably, he didn’t want to do it.
“I don’t think anyone loves to go in-patient in a mental health unit,” he said. “On a scale of 1-to-10, where 1 is the worst depression, and 10 you’re feeling good, I was definitely at a 1.”
And American cinema has given the public frightening ideas about ECT.
“You know, like ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ and so forth, where the person is having a full convulsion,” said Dr. Brian Mickey. “That doesn’t happen in modern ECT.”
Dr. Mickey administers that treatment at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI).
“We use brief pulses as opposed to sign wave stimulation,” he said. “Sine waves are what come out of your electrical outlets. That’s very bad for memory and cognition.”
Sign waves can break bones.
In 2009, Peter Cornish had one of his ECT sessions recorded and uploaded on YouTube. He lay in a hospital bed at UNI, with electrodes strapped to his forehead – not his temples. Cornish inhaled anesthesia for unconsciousness and paralysis.
“The whole idea about going under with an anesthetic, I was very happy about that,” Cornish chuckled.
His body twitched but did not violently shake, like in the movies. Before his medically induced sleep, remember how Cornish ranked his depression at a 1?
“Ten minutes later, I felt like a 7,” he said. “It was remarkable for me.”
“This region that we’re stimulating, we believe, is connected with some other really important brain areas, these networks that we understand as being responsible for depression,” Dr. Mickey said.
To be sure, Dr. Mickey says the electrical pulses caused a seizure in Cornish.
“Seizures, although we don’t know exactly why, clearly cause sprouting of new neurons, and new connections between neurons,” he said.
Seizures also release serotonin, dopamine and other neurochemicals, Dr. Mickey added.
UNI, among other places, also offers TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, which doesn’t require anesthesia or cause seizures.
The patient sits in a big chair.
“And then we put a stimulator coil over the forehead, over the frontal cortex,” Dr. Mickey said. “It delivers pulses of stimulation.”
During TMS, patients read or watch TV.
Magnetic therapies require several treatments per week for up to six weeks. Dr. Mickey says side effects include temporary pain and discomfort with TMS.
With ECT, “People are going to have some degree of memory problems,” he said. “We do our best to minimize that.”
And Cornish says ECT’s relief for depression wears away. He returned for treatments in 2013 and 2016.
Still, he’s convinced the treaments were absolutely worth it.
“I’ve had the healthiest decade of my life,” Cornish said. “I facetiously say that it’s actually better than going to the dentist.”
Not all insurances support these treatments, which Cornish and Dr. Mickey call last resorts. They require extensive consultation with medical professionals first.
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