The Depression Pandemic Meets a Brain Stimulation Headset

If you haven’t yet heard, there’s a depression pandemic sweeping the globe. According to a study done by the Boston University School of Public Health, depression has increased by 300% (3 times) when compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

It is not simply the life-threatening aspect of this virus that has caused this increase. It is more because the virus is lifestyle-threatening. This appears especially true among the younger age group shown in the chart where depression increased by more than 4 times. This could be because younger people have not established stable long-term relationships and need to interact socially in order to reach such a goal. In other words, their lifestyle seems to have been more disrupted than older people who lead a more stable or established lifestyle.

Women seemed more affected by COVID-19 than men. Income, and especially the amount of savings, seemed to influence to what extent a person may experience depression. This could be because employment could be threatened or monthly income could decrease. In short, uncertainty about the future could produce anxiety which could lead to depression. Although this study took place in the U.S., studies in China showed similar increases with over 50% of people claiming depression symptoms after lockdown.

In China, one of the first things people did after lockdown was to file for divorce. A similar situation has been seen in the U.S. where divorce rates have increased by 34%. According to the National Law Review, “relationship counselors consistently rank financial stress, boredom, disagreements about parenting, and arguing about household chores as the most common sources of relationship trouble.” Apparently, these areas of contention only increased during lockdowns. Cultural differences seemed to be a non-factor in divorces in one area: Most divorces (74% in China 71% in the U.S.) are initiated by women. It seems that lockdowns, forcing, as they do, couples to interact more frequently with each other, led to women discovering that the person they married was really not the man of their dreams. The man they tolerated before the lockdown became intolerable during the lockdown. But divorce is also one of the major causes of depression, and so the spiral downward continues and will continue long after COVID-19 is history.

No vaccine will stop this depression pandemic. Victims normally have but three options; therapy, drugs, or a combination of the two. For many people, therapy is simply too expensive. Drugs don’t work for everyone and there is the problem of dependency or side effects. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a solution that was available for everyone? Well, fortunately, we live in the times of technological solutions to everything, and now, there is a technological solution to depression. It’s called the Flow headset.

Now, I should say up front that I have absolutely no connection to this company. I have, however, had several friends who have suffered through long bouts of depression, and I understand how debilitating it can be. Thus, if I can bring attention to a device that has the potential to help the growing number of depressed people… why not? So I decided to determine whether this headset is a valid source of relief or simply techno snake oil.

The headset (shown below) uses a medical technique called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). In this procedure, “weak, direct current is applied through electrodes that are placed on the scalp to induce alterations in cortical activity and excitability.” It is an accepted medical procedure.

In a 2017 study, researchers found that, although tDCS did not work as well as drug therapy (escitalopram), it did work and there were fewer side effects. In the graph of the results below, the scale on the left shows the increasing severity of depression.

More recent studies have confirmed these results. In short, tDCS is a moderately effective way to control depression, probably working better for some people than others.

The company that produces the headset shown above, Flow, does not recommend using the headset alone. They recommend using it with an app that you can download from any trusted app store.

The app basically gives the sufferer something to listen to as they undergo their treatment regimen. The listening sessions give advice on how to augment the effectiveness of the electrical stimulation. Users will get information on such categories as diet and exercise and each listening session is to be used in coordination with the electric stimulation schedule shown below.

The company claims an 81% improvement rate.  Here’s what the user can expect after they finish a complete course of treatment.

But is this really what they get? The company website has a few testimonial videos of satisfied clients, but here is one from someone who was initially skeptical of the whole idea. (If you watch this on YouTube you can get information that will give you a discount.)

In May, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) approved the Flow device for patients with depression. In a sense, this validated it as a real treatment for depression. On the negative side, the headset is quite expensive, generally over $500. However, it would be cheaper than long term therapy or drug purchases. For those who cannot afford such a one time payment, the device can be rented by the month.

Now, the bad news. It is not yet available in the U.S. It is currently only available in Europe. The company claims to be working on extending its territory because they have, unsurprisingly, received an overwhelming number of requests. One can only expect that the company will be working overtime as the pandemic continues to worsen.

But don’t despair. Other tDCS devices are available and some sell at half the price of the Flow device. The only reason I focused on Flow was because it was especially designed to treat depression and has met with medical approval. Other devices exist that are available in the U.S. at a reasonable price and come with high ratings. Here is one that realizes it has a marketing opportunity because of the pandemic.

So a device that may initially seem surprising may soon become mainstream. The side effects are minor although some people note a slight stinging sensation when the electric current is applied. There appear to be no withdrawal symptoms. The Flow headset may not be for everyone but it is an alternative that should be considered by anyone battling depression. For many people, even a slight improvement in their mental health could make an enormous difference in their quality of life.

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