Treating depression with magnets

May is Mental Health Month, an important time to think about the millions of people who suffer from depression, with many losing their lives to a disease we are often afraid to talk about. And it's much more prevalent than you might think.

In fact a National Institutes of Health study shows 48 percent of Americans, roughly one in two, suffers from some sort of psychiatric disorder, ranging from substance abuse and depression to mania and schizophrenia.

Most of us know, or know of, someone suffering from depression and if so, you'll want to pay close attention.

Because there is a new, non-invasive technology recently approved by the FDA involving magnets and it's only being used at one hospital in Northern Indiana, Memorial Hospital.

Wednesday night in a special Medical Moment Just Before Six we'll introduce you to a college student who has battled depression for years, and whose life has changed because of the magnet therapy.

“I realized something was wrong junior year of high school, I didn't know the technical term for it, depression, but I knew things were not right,” says Caitlin Cunningham a senior at Notre Dame. “Everyone one says, oh high school is terrible, everybody is unhappy in high school, blah blah blah. So I didn't really know that it was worse than it was supposed to be.”

But Caitlin describes being down in the dumps all the time. Her depression went untreated for 18 months and when she got to Notre Dame Freshman year she ended up in really bad shape.

“October of freshman year I got hospitalized for my depression,” says Caitlin. “I was very seriously considering suicide at that point.”

Caitlin started seeing Psychiatrist Dr. Suhayl Nasr who is Memorial Hospitals Mental Health director and also in charge of mental health at the University of Notre Dame.

After FDA approval of what's called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS, to treat depression, Dr. Nasr convinced Memorial that it was a therapy desperately needed.

Memorial is now the only area hospital in Northern Indiana using magnetic therapy to treat depression.

Dr. Nasr explains how TMS works, “Projecting a magnet over a specific portion of the brain where we know depression is seated to change the electrical flow in the brain so that patients will recover from their depression without having to have a drug that they take.”

So when Caitlin's depression returned a few months back in spite of being on medication, which depression often does, Dr. Nasr proposed TMS and she's glad he did.

“You sit in this chair, it looks like a dentist chair and they stick a magnet on the forehead and it taps basically, pulses at your head,” says Caitlin. “And half a minute later you're done and you go get your vitals done again and you go home.”

Amazingly, this Notre Dame senior never had to miss a day of class. Her treatment lasted for one hour, Monday through Friday for six weeks.

After spending years on countless anti-depressants Caitlin couldn't believe what she was feeling.

“I hadn't felt happy for years to the point where I didn't remember what happiness is supposed to feel like,” explains Caitlin.

Dr. Nasr says TMS is available to anyone with depression who has failed at least one medication and while most insurance companies won't yet cover the $10,000 cost, he thinks that will change.

“In the studies that they did with this treatment before it was approved some people had up to 23 anti-depressants before they sat in this chair and got well,” says Dr. Nasr. “I think this is the beginning of what we call intervention psychiatry. You know for a while psychiatrist just sat with patients and talked with them and introduced medications and now introducing interventions.”

Caitlin says she can't begin to compare the way she looked at life in the depths of depression to now.

“Everything has had a gray filter in front of it, like I was wearing really thick sun glasses,” says Caitlin. “I sat down one day and starting thinking, am I happy right now because I think I might be and I thought, yeah, yeah I'm happy these days.”

Caitlin's advice for others is get help and don't give up. Dr. Nasr agrees. He says depression is a physical ailment like anything else and too many people suffer silently.

“It's simply treated, try an antidepressant and if it doesn't work come on and get the TMS and it works,” says Dr. Nasr. “You put eye glasses to see you put magnet to fix that part. It’s very simple.”

And Caitlin agrees, “It's made a huge difference in my life.”

And when this young woman dons her cap and gown and graduates in December from a school known for its academic rigors, she’ll know that she won the most important battle of all, over her depression. And it had to do, with all things, magnets.

As we mentioned the cost of this six week therapy is $10,000, and many insurance companies don't yet cover the cost.

Caitlin is currently still taking medication, although Dr. Nasr is working to cut it back.

Dr. Nasr says TMS is effective in half of patients who try it, while a recent study shows just 40 percent of people using drug therapy recover over the course of one year.

Memorial Epworth Center
(574) 647-8400

Caitlin's Blog


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