It’s called the common cold of mental health – depression – because so many people struggle with it. About one in 10 adults in the United States reports suffering from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drugs are one way to manage depression, but there has also been a rise of alternative approaches.
For pharmaceutical companies, depression is a multi-billion dollar industry. More than 250 million prescriptions were written for antidepressants in 2010, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
But what if something as simple as sitting still could help people suffering from depression? Greg Beach, 24, has suffered from depression since he was a child. He says what’s helped him the most is meditating.
A recent analysis of several studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that meditation can help people who suffer from mild or moderate depression. Greg learned how to meditate from a book his friend gave him. Now he meditates 15 to 25 minutes a day and says it has made a huge difference.
"It’s not like a prescription drug to heal a specific ailment, it’s kind of like exercising, its kind of like practicing anything, its to build skills of resilience, so when things aren’t going well, which sometimes they won’t, you have those skills built in to deal," Beach says.
Tom Pedulla is a clinical social worker and board member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. He teaches meditation to some of his patients with depression.
"It just kind of cleans out some of the cobwebs and helps us think more clearly and again connect with the present moment and stay in the present moment," Pedulla says.
The type of meditation Pedulla teaches is called "Mindfulness", because it teaches people to be mindful of – or aware of – their thoughts and emotions. Pedulla says it’s a great tool, but it is not for everybody.
"If a person is in a really deep depression, it’s probably not the best time to teach mindfulness meditation," he says.
Laura Murphy’s depression was so deep, it was physically debilitating.
"My body shuts down," she said. "It’s a physical depression, and it’s treatment resistant, which means I’ve been through a lot of drugs."
Not even shock therapy worked. Then, 18 months ago, Murphy tried something different: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS.
"I’ve tried every available technology to help, this one actually worked on my brain," she said.
TMS uses magnetic pulses to stimulate a region of the brain connected to mood regulation. It’s like someone tapping on your head with a magnet. Daniel Press is the clinical director of the TMS program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
"The magnetic field passes through your scalp and skull, but it actually creates a small electrical current right on the surface of the brain," Press explained. "It isn’t enough to hurt the brain, but it is enough to stimulate it."
TMS is not widely available and researchers are still collecting evidence on how to maximize its effectiveness.
"TMS is still a little bit in a learning phase in that the treatment we have works for some people but not everyone and our goal is to get it to work for everyone," he said.
Finding a treatment that relieves depression for everyone continues to be a worthy, albeit elusive goal.
Dr. John Denninger, of MGH, and Dr. Daniel Press, of Beth Israel, discussed alternative treatments for depression on Greater Boston: