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Stacey Kronenberg (right), operations manager at Achieve TMS East

Stacey Kronenberg (right), operations manager at Achieve TMS East, demonstrates the dTMS technique with technician Sara Pittman.

With data in hand showing that its signature treatment — known as deep transcranial magnetic stimulation — has a strong track record in battling depression, Achieve TMS East has seen significant growth in the region. Now it has further reason to be excited, with the technique showing great promise in treating OCD.

Margie Pierce understands the difficulty — and, yet, the importance — of tackling the problem of depression.

“It’s the leading cause of disability worldwide right now,” said Pierce, a licensed clinical social worker and director of operations at Achieve TMS East, a fast-growing chain of behavioral-health practices that employ an innovative approach to treating depression known as deep transcranial magnetic stimulation, or dTMS.

“We’ve had people who were chronically depressed for 20 years have a fabulous response to this, and we’ve had people chronically depressed who have not had a great response,” she told BusinessWest. “We can’t pigeonhole people when they come in, whether they’re going to respond or you’re not. It’s kind of hit or miss, just like with medications. Some people respond to certain medications, and others don’t.”

That said, however, dTMS has proven remarkably effective in most people who undergo it — in many cases, people who have tried a seemingly endless string of medications and therapies with little success. That explains why the organization has grown to 11 offices across Western Mass., with broader geographic expansion planned.

“We can’t pigeonhole people when they come in, whether they’re going to respond or you’re not. It’s kind of hit or miss, just like with medications. Some people respond to certain medications, and others don’t.”

Deep transcranial magnetic stimulation, or dTMS, is a non-invasive technique that applies a series of brief magnetic pulses to the brain, by passing high currents through an electromagnetic coil placed adjacent to a patient’s scalp. The pulses induce an electric field in the underlying brain tissue and activates underactive areas in the brain associated with depression.

Dr. John Zebrun, senior medical officer with Achieve TMS East, said transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was developed in Europe in the 1990s, and the first machine to receive FDA approval in the U.S. was the Neurostar machine, in 2008, which reached two to three centimeters into the brain, unlike dTMS — developed by an Israeli company called BrainsWay — which reaches six to seven centimeters in, and earned FDA approval in 2013.

“It enables you to get deeper into the brain tissue, so the volume of brain tissue is larger,” Zebrun told BusinessWest. “We don’t miss the target, ever, and there’s more stimulation in that area.”

The developers of the original TMS technique, he explained, wanted to discover if there were circuits or networks in the brain tissue they could stimulate to ease clinical depression. They targeted the left prefrontal area, which imaging scans suggested were underactive in patients with depression.

“The thought was to stimulate that area first and get it closer to a normal activity level, and that would help with depression — and it did. And that still is the primary target,” he said, noting that the device produces a magnetic field, not an electric current. “It’s getting groups of neurons in the circuit to fire together. As they get used to firing together, they’re more connected to each other.”

After a standard treatment of 36 sessions, he went on, those neurons become trained to fire normally. Treatment statistics show that 51% of patients who undergo the entire protocol get all the way to remission, while 75% get at least halfway to their goal. About one-third will need repeat, ‘booster’ treatments down the road, while two-thirds don’t.

Dr. John Zebrun says deep transcranial magnetic stimulation gets deeper into the brain than traditional TMS

Dr. John Zebrun says deep transcranial magnetic stimulation gets deeper into the brain than traditional TMS — and shows great promise for OCD as well.

In short, those are great numbers for a depression treatment, Zebrun said, and that success explains why Achieve has grown so rapidly across the region — and promises to become a more widely known name across the Northeast.

Long Time Coming

The breakthrough in TMS occurred in 1995, Zebrun said; that was when researchers first demonstrated that a magnetic field could stimulate the right neurons and get a response.

“So it’s been around a long time,” he said. “It varies from machine to machine, but they’re all operating within a certain range and certain power level to get the antidepressant effects.”

FDA approval was only one key development, however; insurances companies still needed to pay for the treatment if doctors hoped to reach a wide market. Medicare accepted it in 2015, and other payers soon came on board.

The FDA originally approved TMS for patients who had failed to find relief with another antidepressant treatment. “But insurance companies added extra layers, expecting to see about four medication and psychotherapy trials before they give this approval,” Zebrun said. “But a lot of people out there have already been through years of treatment and tried several medications.”

Dr. Thomas Bombardier, an ophthalmologist turned businessman, was involved with launching a chain of Achieve TMS businesses in California, Pierce told BusinessWest, and when he saw the benefits and how patients were responding out west, he decided to bring the model to his Western Mass. stomping grounds, teaming with two other owners to open Achieve TMS East.

Patients are referred to Achieve by their primary-care doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists, and some self-refer after hearing about the practice through social media or friends or family members.

“We’re very open to however they can get into the door to get the help they need,” Pierce said, noting that, while the majority of people who seek out tDMS are good candidates for it, some aren’t, due to medical contraindications, recent seizures, or even metal in the head that could heat up during the treatment. Everyone also gets a psychiatric consult to see if the treatment will be appropriate.

Stacey Kronenberg, operations manager at Achieve TMS East, demonstrated the dTMS technique for BusinessWest on Sara Pittman, a technician with the practice, although at a very low power level. Pittman put on a soft cap followed by the dTMS helmet, and Kronenberg set the device to a single-pulse mode, moving centimeter by centimeter until she found the motor area for Pittman’s hand, which twitched. From this process of ‘mapping,’ she could locate the right area to target for treatment.

The power setting isn’t uniform for each patient, and can be altered by the thickness of the skull, how much sleep the patient got the night before, even how much coffee they drank that morning. The process involves 36 ‘taps’ in two seconds as the neurons are stimulated, followed by a 20-second break, then another 36 taps in two seconds, then a 20-second break — a cycle repeated 55 times, totaling just over 20 minutes.

Initial treatments are run at lower power than later treatments to desensitize the patient to the sensation, which Pittman described as more of an annoyance — like a woodpecker tapping at her head — than anything. “It’s a tolerable discomfort,” Zebrun added. “I wouldn’t say it’s a breeze, but it’s tolerable.”

Margie Pierce

Margie Pierce says some people have come in after battling depression for 20 years — and finally found relief through dTMS.

Some patients pass the time by chatting with the technician, while others choose something to watch on Netflix, on the big TV hung on the wall beside the treatment chair.

“A lot of people, at the end, are like, ‘oh, I’m done already?’ They’re enjoying their conversation or their show,” Kronenberg said. “I think we should work for Netflix. A lot of people come in and are like, ‘I want to get Netflix.’”

That’s because they’re at the office often enough to binge a lot of TV — five days a week for six weeks, in fact, which is how long it takes to train the brain. “A lot of patients don’t want to leave when it comes to the end of their treatment,” she said. They tell us, “I’m so used to coming and seeing you. Who can I talk to now?’”

Beyond Depression

For starters, they can talk to their loved ones, in most cases, about how effective the treatment was. And depression isn’t the only use for dTMS. The FDA recently approved it as a treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder. In fact, dTMS has been successful in trials for OCD in ways that traditional TMS cannot be, because the target area of the brain is deeper than for depression.

“The surface coils [of TMS] would need so much energy to get that deep, it would hurt. The surface area would get too much stimulation rather than area you’re targeting, and you’d risk a seizure. That wouldn’t happen with dTMS,” Zebrun explained.

He said he hopes to reach people who don’t find standard cognitive treatment for OCD effective. “It can devastate one’s life. You can get wound up into some of these compulsions, or your mind can be so caught up and obsessed with obsessive thinking that you can’t focus on anything else. You can’t get through a planned project because there’s too many interruptions from your loops of thought that come in. There’s a wide range of those obsessions and compulsions.”

Even milder symptoms of OCD can really bother people, he added. “They wish they could get rid of these images popping into their head that started from nowhere and have no relation to anything in their lives and are disturbing to them.”

“They’ll say, ‘why wouldn’t you try this? What do you have to lose, except maybe your depression?’ … For most people, it’s going to help.”

Kronenberg also hopes dTMS makes an impact on the lives of these patients, noting that OCD is one of the most thorny issues that therapists tackle. And, much like depression, she added, OCD can be a “hidden” disease because there’s some stigma and shame associated with it.

But there shouldn’t be, Zebrun said, especially when something like dTMS exists, with its strong track record and its minimal side effects, which may include facial muscle contractions and headaches, which are both temporary. Fewer than one patient in 1,000 may experience a seizure — a risk similar to that of taking an antidepressant medication at the maximum dose.

Because it’s tolerable, he added, patients can do it before or after work, or during their lunch break, and return to their normal activities.

And maybe a normal life.

“People who for 20 years were depressed say it’s life-changing for them,” said Anita Taylor, marketing director at Achieve TMS East. “When we hear those kind of stories, we’ll ask them, ‘what would you say to someone thinking about this?’ They’ll say, ‘why wouldn’t you try this? What do you have to lose, except maybe your depression?’ It’s worth it to give it a try, go in wholeheartedly, and, for most people, it’s going to help.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

A Different Kind of Health Crisis

Dr. Gaurav Chawla

Dr. Gaurav Chawla describes suicide as “a very unfortunate, tragic outcome of a complex set of circumstances.”

It’s a common, but certainly not universal, refrain when an individual takes his or her own life.

Friends and relatives will say they didn’t see any signs that this was coming, said Kate Hildreth-Fortin, program director, Emergency Service & Mobile Crisis Intervention with Behavioral Health Network (BHN). Or they’ll say that they could not see any apparent reason for this outcome, that the individual in question seemed outwardly happy and was enjoying life.

That’s what people said about celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, designer Kate Spade, comedian Robin Williams, and countless others, famous and not at all famous.

“But almost always, there are warning signs, and there are reasons,” said Hildreth-Fortin, one of many who spoke with BusinessWest about a subject that is timely, immensely complicated, and a true healthcare crisis probably on the same level as the one involving opioid addiction.

“If you think about the cost society pays due to undiagnosed mental-health conditions, due to emotional crises and stressors leading to loss of function and ultimately to suicide, and how many lives are directed affected by suicide … when you think about all that, this is a public health crisis.”

Timely not just because of those celebrity suicides several months ago — although they always help bring attention to the problem — and not just because of a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the growing problem.

It’s timely because the numbers continue to rise, as does the overall toll from suicide, which goes well beyond the individuals who take their own life, said Dr. Gaurav Chawla, chief medical officer at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, part of Trinity Health Of New England, who estimated that six lives are directly impacted by each suicide.

“If you think about the cost society pays due to undiagnosed mental-health conditions, due to emotional crises and stressors leading to loss of function and ultimately to suicide,” he went on, “and how many lives are directed affected by suicide … when you think about all that, this is a public health crisis.”

Getting back to the numbers, they are eye-opening and quite alarming:

• The most recent surveys show there are 45,000 completed suicides in the U.S. every year;

• That number has steadily risen since the start of this millennium, with suicides up a total of 28% since 2000;

• Massachusetts has the third-lowest suicide rate in the nation, but the rate of suicides in the Bay State has increased 35% since 1999, well above the national average;

• Women attempt suicide at a higher rate than men, but men complete suicide at a higher rate than women;

• Firearms are used in more than 50% of suicide attempts;

• Middle-aged white men (those in their 40s to mid-50s) have the highest suicide rate, particularly when they are single, but there is another peak involving individuals over 84; and

• Among individuals ages 14-34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death after accidents.

Perhaps as disturbing and frustrating as the numbers themselves are the forces behind them. They are numerous, often difficult to see, and very difficult to combat.

But there are common denominators of a sort. For starters, suicide usually results from a combination of factors, not one in particular, said Chawla, who summed things up succinctly, noting that “there is never one reason for someone to take their life; suicide is a very unfortunate, tragic outcome of a complex set of circumstances.

Kate Hildreth-Fortin

In almost all cases, Kate Hildreth-Fortin says, there are warning signs with someone contemplating suicide.

“You will often see the assumption that undiagnosed mental illness or inadequately recognized or treated mental illness is the cause,” he went on. “However, that is a myth; 50% of the suicides do not have a diagnosed mental illness behind them.”

As for what is behind them, that list is obviously quite long, said Hildreth-Fortin, and could include biological and genetic factors, increasing stresses of life, relationship crises, financial and occupational stressors, poor coping styles, increased substance use, and many others.

Another common denominator is that those contemplating suicide generally feel trapped in a life that does not bring them happiness or make them fulfilled, said those we spoke with, adding that this descriptive phrase can be applied to people at every age, every income bracket, and every walk of life.

Slicing through it all, such individuals need a way out of that trap and can’t find one or are unwilling to try, said Chawla.

“Suicide is a confluence of circumstances that lead one to conclude that they’re trapped in a hopeless circumstance, sometimes without purpose, in a painful existence from which there is no other way out,” he told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, providing a way out, especially to those suffering from behavioral-health issues (and that’s a large percentage of those who contemplate or complete suicide) is made more difficult by the persistent stigma attached to seeking help for such conditions, and then finding help in a system plagued by a shortage of resources.

These are the reasons why this is a healthcare crisis, even if the same politicians who are quick to give such a label to the opioid epidemic are mysteriously reluctant to do the same with suicide.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a long, hard look at suicide, going beyond the numbers in a quest to explain why they continue to rise, and also looking at how area professionals are helping those who are in that aforementioned ‘trap’ and need a way out.

A Failure of the System

Hildreth-Fortin, like the others we spoke with, said that, while it is somewhat regrettable that it often takes celebrity suicides like Bourdain’s and Spade’s to bring heavy media attention to the problem of suicide, she’s happy for the attention and a chance to bring the conversations to the forefront, instead of the background, where they have been for too long.

That’s because a brighter light needs to be shone on this crisis to bring about any kind of change in the current trends. With that attention, she said, there is hope that the stigma attached to mental-health issues and seeking help for them might be diminished; hope that more resources might be brought to bear to address the crisis, as has happened with opioid addiction; hope that friends and loved ones might become aware of the warning signs — what to do when they see and hear them; and hope that those feeling trapped might be more persistent in finding a way out.

That’s a lot of hoping, but in this battle, those fighting it will take whatever help they can get, especially with regard to that stigma concerning mental health.

“Suicide is a word we use every day; it’s something we deal with every day,” said Hildreth-Fortin, whose program handles roughly 1,300 assessments a month, and 70% of these individuals, in her estimation, have suicidal thoughts. “There’s a lot we can do with prevention; we need to reduce the stigma, improve education, and treat suicide the same way we would diabetes — ‘what can we do to help someone?’”

Chawla agreed, and said the stigma attached to both suicide and mental illness and seeking help for it often contributes to a lack of understanding concerning why someone commits suicide.

That is certainly the case with celebrities such as Bourdain, Williams, and others, he went on, adding that, to most of the rest of the world, these people seem happy and content with their lives.

But it’s not the world’s perception of these individuals that matters; it’s how they view themselves, and this is true of people across all income levels and social strata.

“It’s about perceptions of who you are, how you fit in your world, and how meaningful you find your existence,” he said. “That’s what ultimately leads to or doesn’t lead to such acts.”

But while suicide is seemingly an individual act, it isn’t, and each act represents more than one person choosing that tragic outcome.

“Suicide is taken as one event by one individual, and that’s not what it is,” said Chawla. “It is the final outcome of the failure of the system. Along the way, there are many lives affected, there’s a lot of loss of function, and there is opportunity that’s missed.”

Hildreth-Fortin and others at BHN agreed, and said one huge key to perhaps reducing the number of suicides is to seize opportunities rather than miss them.

And there is quite a bit that goes into this equation, she noted, listing everything from proper training of police officers, teachers, and others to being aware of the many warning signs; from knowing what questions to ask those at risk (and asking them) to knowing how to respond to the answers to those questions.

And this means not overreacting or underreacting, and, above all, connecting people at risk with services that provide help, said Hildreth-Fortin, who, like Matthew Leone, assistant program director of the crisis unit at BHN, is trained in something called QPR, which stands for question, persuade, refer — the three basic steps in suicide prevention.

“This is training given to anyone in recognizing the risk factors, how to persuade the person to get help, and how to refer that person for help,” Leone explained, adding that, in his role, he does a lot of training in the community on how to recognize suicide.

Which brings him to those warning signs. There are many to watch for, some subtle, some most definitely not, he said.

“This is training given to anyone in recognizing the risk factors, how to persuade the person to get help, and how to refer that person for help”

They could and often do include people saying ‘goodbye’ or ‘nice to know you’ on Facebook and other platforms, individuals giving away possessions, young people suddenly drawing up a will, people losing interest in things they enjoy doing, a decrease in performance at school, and many others.

“A more overt sign might be when they start stockpiling medication or another means of following through on their plan,” Leone went on, adding that, in addition to these warning signs, which are clearly red flags, there are also risk factors.

And there are many of those, he said, starting with being a middle-age male. Others include financial distress, depression, divorce, loss of a job, being given a terminal diagnosis, and, of course, a combination of some of these.

Questions and Answers

The next part of the equation is knowing what to do when warning signs are recognized, or with someone who outwardly seems at risk, said Hildreth-Fortin.

She acknowledged that having a conversation with such an individual and asking the questions that need to be asked is awkward and often very difficult (some fear that just asking the questions can help promote a suicidal act) but it needs to be done.

“A big piece of QPR training is teaching people how to ask the question, to get someone comfortable with asking someone if they’re suicidal,” she said, adding that this training is often given to first responders and educators, but parents, spouses, friends, and employers also fall into the category of individuals who need to ask questions and need to know how to ask and also how to respond.

Questions should focus on what thoughts people are having, how often they’re having them, and whether they’ve acted on these thoughts in any way before, said Hallie-Beth Hollister, assistant program director, Community Relations for BHN, adding that the answers will generally reveal just how at-risk someone might be.

Jenni Pothier

Jenni Pothier says those working with those contemplating suicide need to create a comfortable, non-judgmental, open space for dialogue to occur.

One key, she went on, is not asking leading questions that would enable the individual to give the answers the questioner might be looking for.

“Don’t say, ‘you’re not thinking of killing yourself, right?’” she said by way of example.

But, as noted, recognizing warning signs and asking the right questions are only parts of the equation. Responding to the signs and the questions to the answers is another big part, said Leone, adding that that many people balk at asking questions, or especially difficult and specific questions, because of anxiety about the answer.

“‘What do I do if the answer is yes?’” is a question that unnerves many, he went on, adding that there’s a reason for this; the response can be complex.

“We talk with people all day who mention that they’ve having suicidal thoughts,” he explained. “Some have the intent to follow through, others do not; some have vague suicidal ideation where there’s no real plan to it.”

Which is why overreaction is possible and should be avoided.

“Many times, with suicide, when someone says they’re having those thoughts, instead of starting a conversation, it ends the conversation,” he explained. “People will jump in and say, ‘we need to get them to the hospital, we need to get them help now,’ when the person is just reaching out to talk about it for help.

“And this overreaction can have a negative effect to it because then the next time the person is experiencing those thoughts, they may not say anything,” he went on, adding that the key is generating the proper response given the individual’s risk factors, warning signs, the strength of the connections in his or her life, and other factors.

Jenni Pothier, director of the Tenancy Preservation program for Springfield-based Mental Health Associates, agreed. In the course of her work, which involves helping individuals who are at risk of homelessness — a stressful situation to say the least — the subject of suicide often comes up.

“Because we know that suicide includes risk factors like poverty, experiencing potential homelessness, and a lack of access to resources, people are in crisis,” she explained. “So we’re assessing people regularly for suicide.”

And those assessments involve asking those questions mentioned above, asking them in an effective way, and responding in the appropriate manner.

“As practitioners and clinicians in the community, you need to create comfortable, non-judgmental, and open spaces for dialogue to occur,” she explained, “so people can express to you how they’re feeling without the fear of the stigma or that you’re going to instantly call 911 to get them hospitalized if they say they’re contemplating suicide or having suicidal ideations.”

Bottom Line

As she talked with BusinessWest about suicide and, more specifically, the problems many have with asking the questions that must of asked of someone at risk, Hildreth-Fortin related the story about an educator who, during a QPR training session, admitted not only that she would have difficulty asking such questions, but also that she would be upset if someone put those questions to her child.

“I had a real hard time responding to her, because it spoke so greatly to the stigma attached to this,” she said. “If your child had a stomach ache, you wouldn’t have a problem with him going to the nurse. You talk about what hurts, what kind of pain it is … we have to treat suicide the same way we would any medical symptom. We have to talk about it.”

It will take a confluence of factors and a great deal of resources to reverse the current trends on suicide, but getting people to talk about it and respond to the talk is the big first step, said Chawla, adding that only by doing so can those missed opportunities he mentioned become real opportunities to do something about a true healthcare crisis.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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