We’ve all had the same thought. While watching, listening to, or reading an ad for a certain drug claiming to help a certain ailment, there’s always that, “Oh, by the way” part at the end. It’s the part that (by law) lists the seemingly endless array of possible side effects of the drug, where words like “diarrhea” and “death” are bandied about as if they were nothing more than a skinned knee.
The customary response to those ads? “Thanks, anyway, but I’ll take my chances with the ailment.”
For people in the grip of depression, though, it’s never that simple. According to Mental Health America, over 19 million people are diagnosed with depression each year. For reasons of preference, fear of side effects, or a perceived negative impact on job performance, drugs are not a viable option for many of those people.
Fortunately, several non-drug treatments for depression are gaining traction among medical professionals these days. In no particular order, they are:
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
Before you start to cringe, this is not the crude “shock treatment” of the past that was made infamous in, for example, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and (rightly so) in countless medical journals over the decades. The electrical currents in this procedure are much lower than in the past. Also, patients are under general anesthesia, so feel no pain.
ECT sends a low-level electrical signal through the brain to induce a 30- to 60-second general seizure. The most common result is quick relief from depression, usually lasting a week or two. ECT may be followed up by psychotherapy.
The procedure is not without its own potential side effects, temporary memory loss being the most common. Just the same, today ECT is considered among the safest and most effective treatments available for depression.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a high-syllable but low-impact treatment that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain, which can improve symptoms of depression. This procedure generates an electric current across the scalp and skull without actual physical contact.
In an independent trial by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), patients treated with TMS were four times more likely to achieve remission of depression symptoms, compared to patients receiving “sham treatment,” the term that clinical trials use in the same way that “placebo” is used in drug trials.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in adults with treatment-resistant depression in 2008. There is currently a study being conducted at the University of Cincinnati to test its effectiveness for ages 12 to 21.
The side effects appear to be minimal: about half of the people who undergo TMS report mild headaches.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Can you think your way out of depression? Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven effective for some people with mild to moderate depression. It’s an idea based on the theory that thoughts trigger feelings, and that changing your thoughts can improve the way you feel.
Being aware of the negativity in your head – and learning to change destructive patterns – may alter the way your brain works and allow you to react to situations in a more positive way. In short, the therapist will help a patient in these areas:
- Assessment of negative thought patterns
- Organizing more positive alternative patterns
- Learning to incorporate new perspectives into unconscious thought
Controlling the internal dialogue that goes on inside our brains is never easy, but for those who can achieve it, CBT has a solid track record for a range of conditions including depression, panic attacks and other anxiety-related disorders.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS)
There’s one vagus nerve on each side of your body, running from your brainstem through your neck to your chest and abdomen. Vagus nerve stimulation (as the name would suggest) stimulates the nerve on the left side – the one that carries messages to parts of the brain that control mood and sleep. Most often used to treat epilepsy, it’s also an alternative treatment for some types of depression.
Finally, there are changes in behavior that most medical professionals recommend to battle depression. They include regular exercise, meditation or yoga, dietary supplements (always with a doctor’s consultation), and a healthy, balanced diet.
It’s never a good idea to try to “go it alone” when facing an episode of depression. Help is out there, even for those for whom drugs are not an option. But one action that is common among all therapies for depression is the patient taking that first, giant step to get the help he or she needs.
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Jack wrote for HealthCentral as an editor on vision care, skin care, and mental health.