Slowly but surely, our society is moving away from stigmatising mental illness, and towards accepting and treating it. After all, it’s no small issue — 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and depression affects roughly three percent of the UK population at any given time — while mixed anxiety and depression affects as many as 9.7%. It may seem astonishing, therefore, that so little focus has been put on treating depression, especially when you bear in mind that, in the UK, suicide is the single biggest killer of men between 20-45— but finally, thanks in part to the confessions of many high net worth individuals such as Catherine Zeta Jones, Russel Brand and Robin Williams, who have been open about their own struggles with mental health, it appears renewed efforts are finally being made to treat the disease.
Even more interestingly, advances are being made in an area you may not associate with treatment for mental health — technology. You might be more used to linking technological advances with high net worth entrepreneurs like Tej Kohli and Bill Gates rather than with alternative treatments for depression, but it seems technology really can solve any issue — and here’s how.
Electro-Convulsive Shock Therapy and its Evolution
ECT is thought of as highly controversial, due to its negative portray in movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Requiem For A Dream, but in fact, the technology the treatment is based on is entirely logical. Depression is believed to be caused by imbalances in neurotransmitters, and ECT works to reset these brain chemicals by inducing a small seizure, which may sound scary, but is actually still used to treat approximately 100,000 patients a year, and is very effective for those with severe depression.
It has branched out into several new, similar therapies too — such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which works by placing an electromagnetic device on the scalp and using it to send short bursts of energy to the brain, and Vagus Nerve Stimulation, which involves the insertion of a small device (similar to a pacemaker), which is inserted into the chest and used to deliver small pulses to the vagus nerve, which is located in the side of the neck and then delivers the stimulation directly to the brain.
These therapies have relatively few side effects compared to medication, and are extremely effective at treating persistent, chronic depression. And recently, a wirelessly powered implant the size of a grain of rice was developed which may help treat depression when implanted in the brain — so why don’t these technologies garner the kind of investment from high net worth tech-savvy individuals as, say, experiments into prolonging human life do? Should someone with Tej Kohli’s net worth, or Larry Ellison’s, channel their funding into refining these procedures, who knows what advances we’d see in the treatment of depression in five years time? And with Tej Kohli’s interest in philanthropic technology, it seems an area that his company, Tej Kohli Ventures, could really get behind — so why don’t these developments gain enough press attention to attract such investment?
It seems that we’ve learned to stop stigmatising mental illness, but haven’t made the same kind of advances in how we view technologies such as Electro-Convulsive Therapy and Vagus Nerve Stimulation — and until we do, the technologies just aren’t going to go mainstream enough to make a real difference to how doctors treat their patients. So don’t take the world of old movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest above those of real scientists — these therapies can provide real benefits to patients, and they deserve our attention.