There are many books about mood disorders, but few so brave or descriptive as Greg Harman’s. His book is called After Depression: What an experimental medical treatment taught me about mental illness and recovery, and explores Harman’s involvement in a clinical trial studying a magnet-based medical device. A first person account, Harman’s book walks us through the experience of depression and ensuing experimental treatment by thoroughly describing the symptoms, suffering, and hope of relief.
Harman hid his illness for more than 20 years, enduring panic attacks, deep depression, and a myriad of difficulties in his personal and professional life. When NeoSync offered a clinical trial using the sTMS device (synchronized transcranial magnetic stimulation), Harman quit his job as a newspaper editor and joined.
Harman’s struggle with anxiety and depression is not a rare one. Depression causes disability and loss of work throughout the world, costing the economy approximately $36.6 billion per year. One study reported that one in every 16 young adults has a serious mental illness.
It’s no wonder, then, that a person who is living with depression or mental illness might resort to any number of options, including yoga and daily affirmations, exercise and medication, brain stimulation studies and even surgery. Most will confess that they’ve “thrown the kitchen sink” at the problem in an effort to feel better. The good news is that horror stories about treatments like electro-shock therapy are a thing of the past. Newer methods are gentler, less invasive and appear to be more effective.
sTMS is only one of many devices and methods being used for clinical trials for the treatment of mood disorders. Others include Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), magnetic seizure therapy (MST) and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Greg Harman’s study specifically used sTMS, which “involves three spinning magnets timed to stir magnetic waves across the entire cerebral cortex at a frequency unique to one’s own alpha brainwaves – typically between 8 and 12 cycles per second—in the hopes of restoring its normal electrical patterns.” The idea is that the abnormal brain rhythms can be reset to normal rhythms, thereby reducing depressive symptoms. Blood flow might also improve, as would mood, memory, and cognition. The patient’s depression, frantic anxiety, and loss of pleasure in daily activities would reset to a more stable, normal mood with manageable highs and lows along with motivation, pleasure, and even joy.
Harman’s personal experience echoed the results of the overall study, which is to say it appears the treatment does have benefits. Andrew Leuchter, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA said, “The study found sTMS therapy to be significantly more effective than sham when administered as intended, supporting the hypothesis that low-field magnetic stimulation improves depressive symptoms.”
Furthermore, Mark S. George, MD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Radiology and Neurology at the Medical University of South Carolina said that these results “…indicate that sTMS is a promising novel technology for the treatment of depression.”
I spoke with Harman about the efficacy of sTMS. He indicated that he wanted to be clear that the recovery he experienced was limited to a couple of months. It appears that in order to maintain recovery benefits, follow-up treatment is required. Since FDA approval is still pending, those treatments aren’t yet available. He mentioned managing his symptoms by adding cognitive, mind-body, and dietary approaches.
I was struck most by Harman’s willingness to lay bare his own battle with depression. Throughout the book, he offers the reader an inside look at what it feels like to endure profound misery, anguish, and despondency. He doesn’t flinch when giving vivid accounts of his sometimes confusing and upsetting dreams, and his worries about living normally and happily as an adult with a job and a partner, with goals and plans.
After reading the book, I became more interested in the clinical trials available to those suffering from treatment-resistant depression. I talked with friends and colleagues and even met a couple of people who had been involved in such studies.
One woman I met had participated in an MST (Magnetic Seizure Therapy) study. She talked with optimism about the clinical trial, suggesting that she felt helped by the treatment and hoped that others would experience similar benefits. She said of the treatment, “It changed my life. It was incredibly effective. I would do it again if I ever need it.” Her strong belief is that it helps to reach out to friends, to gather a support system, and you can’t do that if you don’t tell anyone what you’re going through. The stigma creates silence, and silence can be lethal.
The good news about Greg Harman’s book is that it breaks that silence. It does exactly what it sets out to do—examines a problem, removes the stigma, and opens the discussion about options, ideas, and hope.