Flow Headset, £399
It's fair to say we are in the midst of a mental health crisis, where more people than ever are experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression. Medication has, by and large, been the go-to treatment options, offering a quick-fix for a problem that the NHS doesn't have the time or money to deal with.
Therapy and counseling is oversubscribed on the NHS and it's expensive if pursued privately, meaning people are often left with little or no treatment options other than medication. Obviously, this isn't ideal. Not only has it been shown that a holistic treatment proogramme including both therapy and medication is far more effective at treating mental health conditions and preventing relapse, but medication also has the issue of . physical and mental side effects and in some cases, dependency.
While there are plenty of meditation and mindfulness apps available, as well as an increasingly open conversation surrounding mental health, there has been little innovation in terms of proven and approved treatment.
Until now, that is. Flow is the first at-home device that has been approved in the UK and EU for treatment of major depressive disorder. And it's medication-free.
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I'm no stranger to mental health treatments. I've tried CBT, exposure therapy, talking therapy and mindfulness as well as antidepressants to treat my OCD and panic disorder. All in all, this approach has been effective - although I'm still taking antidepressants six years since my first prescription and, of course, there is the reality that I am in an incredibly fortunate position to be able to afford a therapist. Clearly, both therapy and medication come with issues, whether it be affordability, dependency or side effects.
I've also tried less conventional "therapies" in the name of mental wellness. Floatation tanks, CBD baths, gut yoga, you name it. And they have been incredibly uplifting and I have no doubt have acted as a lovely supplement by treatment regime. But they can't actually treat my anxiety or my OCD. They're not medically approved and are insufficient to be effective if used alone.
That's why Flow caught my attention. A medically approved treatment option that doesn't involve medication and can be self administered? Amazing.
Flow uses Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), which according to their website is "a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, which works by stimulating the brain using a weak, barely noticeable, electric signal in order to change neural activity patterns beneath the stimulated areas." The reason why this is effective in treatment of depression is because people with depression often have an under-active frontal cortex. Flow provides 30 minutes of stimulation to be used in conjunction with the app, which provides "therapy" sessions. The sessions cover everything from understand how the brain works, to diet and lifestyle advice, to sleeping and self care tips.
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So far, the results have been extremely promising. A recent randomised controlled trial (RCT) on 245 patients show that 41% of the patients had a 50% reduction or more in their depression symptoms after using it for 5 consecutive days followed by seven weekly sessions. This puts it up there with CBT and antidepressants in terms of efficacy. And although Flow isn't exactly cheap, it's cheaper than a course of therapy- and it's a one-off cost. Plus, the founders are in talks with the NHS to see if there's the possibility of making the device available to patients.
Opening the box, Flow is simple and space-age. The head set looks clinical but not scary, and the instructions are incredibly straightforward. Simply download the app, charge your headset, and go.
Before using, you answer questionnaires on the app and have a chat with a very friendly bot about the treatment (it offers explanations, research and insight as well as gathering information about your needs and concerns - and sending GIFS of cute dogs).
The following 18 sessions cover everything from how to stop negative thought spirals, to mindfulness, to what foods have been shown to decrease depressive symptoms, to improving sleep quality - all of which you complete while wearing the headset over a 34 day time frame. After the 34 day programme, you can do a weekly follow up session.
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As advised, I fit the headset and lie down to complete the session. The current is a little stingy but nothing unbearable, and I quickly get used to it. To me, it kind of feels like mild sunburn - but it passes as soon as I took off the headset.
I finished my session "What is depression?" before my 30 minutes of neurostimulation was up, so for the rest of the time, Flow suggested I play a memory building game, which was actually pretty good fun.
I finish the session in a great mood, with a slightly red forehead where the pads had been. I will keep going until the full course is over, and although I'm not currently depressed, I still have symptoms of anxiety that I'm hoping will be improved. Watch this space.