How Non-Traditional Therapies Can Help Heal Depression

As a caregiver and someone who is watching a loved one struggle with a mood disorder, finding your way around the world of “cures” and healing techniques can be confusing. Most people start with a trip to a therapist who can screen you and then recommend where to go for help. Typically, the standard treatment is talk therapy in conjunction with medication. Psychiatric medications can be prescribed by Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners, Psychiatrists and, increasingly, by your Primary Care Physician.

Although seeking treatment from a PCP is convenient and can be easier to schedule than finding a specialist, sometimes finding a skilled psychiatric prescriber (APRN or a Psychiatrist) will benefit you in the long run. These professionals are specialists in the treatment of depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other mental health disorders.  Having a medication specialist for depression will likely improve your chances of finding the best treatment options for your family member. In addition there are genetic tests your doctor can order to provide a list of best fit medications as well as those contraindicated for you. Since only about 50% of people get relief from the first medication tried, this test might be helpful.

Non-Traditional (or Alternative) Treatments for Depression

There are probably many more treatments but here are some of the top “alternative” or adjunct treatments other than medication or talk therapy.

1.  rTMS, or Repeated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: This is a form of brain stimulation therapy that uses magnetic impulses instead of electricity to stimulate parts of the brain. It was developed in the early 1980s as a possible treatment for depression. According to Psychiatric Times, many people, perhaps as many as 20-40% of the 121 million people globally who experience depression, who do not respond to pharmacological interventions, which is why rTMS is sometimes helpful.

2. Ketamine Treatments: According to the National Institutes of Health, ketamine is a fast-acting anti-depressant that can deal with depression-related symptoms in hours rather than in weeks. It is given via an IV drip. However, while there are some hopeful signs that treating depression with ketamine can be effective, we do not have many studies right now on any long-term consequences or side effects of ketamine usage.

3. The use of light boxes for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAS): This seemingly benign treatment needs close analysis and awareness due to possible safety issues. It is always prudent to include your doctor or pharmacist in the discussion about medications and medical conditions which might be made worse if light box therapy is introduced. Check out for the latest safety information on this treatment.

4. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: EMDR therapy is based on the idea that sometimes we get “stuck” when processing traumatic experiences and our brain needs a little help to recover from the experience. This therapy works by asking people to process trauma while tracking a therapist’s hand or a light with their eyes as they talk. According to many studies, this process has been found to help people recover from traumatic events.

5. Massage treatments: According to the American Massage Therapy Association, massage therapy has long been a treatment for myriad medical and mental health wellness approaches. The exact reasons why it helps are still not known, but many studies suggest massage can have as much positive effect as talk therapy.

6. Hypnosis: Hypnosis is sometimes combined with other therapies to treat mental health symptoms. It is believed to enhance treatment of depression when coupled with other therapies, e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is considered another effective tool in the treatment of depression by many therapists.

7. Sleep Deprivation Therapy: This therapy, which involves limiting a person’s time spent sleeping, reportedly has quite a high success rate. The downside is that the mood boost appears to only last until the patient falls asleep. Scientific America has an in-depth article on this method: “Why Sleep Deprivation Eases Depression.”

8. Chinese herbal medicine: Some practitioners, Joel Harvey Schrek of PositiveHealthOnline, among them, contend that unlike western medicine approaches, Chinese Herbal Medicine has the potential to cure mental illness. This method works by giving patients a pill or tea that has a mixture of Chinese herbs in it. According to traditional sources, these herbs soothe the liver and help relieve depression.

Psychosurgery: This type of treatment has been around for many years and is typically a collaboration between psychiatry and neurosurgery. It is widely reported that about 1/3 of patients show significant improvement in their symptoms after surgery. Over time the side effects have diminished and makes it a viable choice for intractable depression. This method generally works by destroying a small portion of brain tissue with heat. The tissue targeted in this procedure is not central to intellectual functioning or quality of life.

How Alternative Therapies Can Help Treat Depression

For a majority of people, alternative therapies are used in conjunction with medication or talk therapy, or both. In addition, research indicates that patients have longer-lasting results when using these therapy approaches together. However, the path to feeling better does not always end with a prescription and a good therapist. People are increasingly adding or replacing the go-to approaches (Medication and Therapy) with some of the alternative treatments above.

If your loved one is struggling with depression and wants to try the “alternative therapies” described above what is one to say? Well, according to Andrew Solomon, author of “The Noon Day Demon – An Atlas of Depression,” there are many people who report being helped or healed by alternative therapies. The idea of deviating from the tried and true treatments of depression can sometimes be worrisome, but Mr. Solomon responds to the dilemma this way:

“Depression is a disease of thought processes and emotions, and if something changes your thought processes and emotions in the correct direction, that qualifies as a recovery. Frankly, I think that the best treatment for depression is belief, which is in itself far more essential than what you believe in.”

Simply put, there are many variables playing into the healing of mental disease – your specific situation, your openness, genetics, the sociological and physiological factors all play a role in the process. So when it comes to supporting a loved one struggling with mental disease, supporting their quest for alternative techniques and treatments is like keeping that space open for healing opportunities, whatever form they may come in.

Four Ideas for Supporting a Family Member With Depression and the Use of Alternative Treatments

  1. Become educated about the alternative treatments available and whether adding one of them can help existing treatment of depression. Keep an open mind and approach these therapies with curiosity rather than skepticism.
  2. Seek out the best possible practitioner of the treatment. Talk with professionals for possible referrals. Be open to paying out of pocket as some of these therapies might not come with insurance reimbursement.
  3. Support the person in their quest to feel better. Even if your psychiatrist is against the idea, support your family member and understand the pros and cons of alternative treatments.
  4. Encourage your family member to join a support group that focuses on their particular illness.

As Solomon points out,

Emotional pain and the alleviation of it is not a new phenomenon. For most people suffering from depression, the combination of medication with psychotherapy is an excellent place to begin. Just be prepared. If your family member’s depression does not subside or it is a long-term chronic depression, the quest to be well might involve healing of a different sort. 

Utilizing some of the alternative therapies mentioned above may be warranted.

At Chaos to Calm Counseling, we work with couples and individuals to facilitate healthy relationships for the betterment of families and society at large. Learn more about our team, schedule a free consult, or call us at (978) 241-2881.