Walking the streets of Alice Springs, town crier Meredith Campbell rings a bell and calls out greetings to people she passes.
Smiling brightly, she said moments like these still feel like miracles.
Just six months ago, Ms Campbell was in the darkest place she had ever been.
He can’t shower, boil a kettle, send a text message, or drive a car.
He would not leave the house, or even let his loved ones touch him.
This is a complete change from the bubbly, outgoing girl everyone knows, who “lives to socialize”.
Eventually, he would receive a diagnosis of chronic depression with psychosis.
At that moment, everything seemed hopeless.
That is, until he was mandated to accept a little-known, even stigmatized treatment without it, he says he doesn’t have it now.
“It was a therapy that saved my life,” Ms Campbell said.
“I got out of the deepest black hole I’ve ever been in in my 65 years.”
‘I never felt like I was in complete control’
Ms Campbell said, as her symptoms gradually progressed, she first noticed something was wrong on May 15 this year.
“I went to meet a friend for lunch, and I felt really shaky, I didn’t feel like I was in control of the car,” he said.
He remembers that as the day “everything shut down”.
“Depression with psychosis means you’re consumed with very negative thoughts about what’s going to happen to you, you’re consumed with negativity,” Ms Campbell said.
“Part of my diagnosis is nihilistic tendencies, which means having delusions of extreme negativity, and even to the point of thinking about death.”
Ms Campbell confined herself to the house and stopped bathing or cooking.
A local marriage celebrant, he gave up all his bookings overnight but was unable to call clients to explain why.
She was filled with fear that she was somehow contagious, and she wouldn’t let her son near her in case she passed something on to her two children.
“He realized something psychotic was going on, so he called an ambulance,” she said.
Ordered to receive ECT
In four months, Ms Campbell attended emergency four times.
At his last presentation, he was admitted to the mental health ward at Alice Springs Hospital.
There his psychiatric team decided to order him to receive electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
He still remembers the fear.
“All I know about it is that it’s very bad publicity,” he said.
“Like 50 years ago, you would be given a leather strap to bite into and say your last prayers when you received an electric current in your brain.”
He was taken to Darwin, where he stayed for about a month to receive treatment.
Ms Campbell said that contrary to her expectations, the procedure was delivered under anaesthetic.
After just three sessions, she began to see a change.
He started eating and exercising more, and after a total of 10 sessions, enjoyed a vacation with his wife at a tropical resort.
He arrived in Darwin in a wheelchair, but returned to Alice Springs without any mobility aids.
“I do ECT with a complete turnaround in my prospects, and I continue to think of it as a miracle cure,” he says.
Concerns ECT is still stigmatized
ECT involves passing a carefully controlled electric current through the brain while the patient is under anesthesia, essentially “rewiring it”.
Clinical psychiatrists say that modern methods are safe and effective in relieving severe symptoms of depression and psychosis.
Colleen Loo is a professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales and the Black Dog Institute, and an internationally recognized clinical expert on ECT.
He said on a micro level, the procedure caused individual brain cells to grow and become “round and healthy” while on a macro level, it was like “rebooting a computer”.
“We know that with disorders like depression, the brain is stuck in patterns of circuit activity that are different from when people are in normal health,” he said.
“The fact that ECT can be so powerful to reset it we think is very useful.”
However, Professor Loo says there is still widespread stigma around ECT, which is only exacerbated by online misinformation.
“I have to explain to people that these opinions are not really based on fact,” he said.
Professor Loo said while there was a large range of outcomes with ECT, for most patients, brain function improved.
“It’s a vicious circle that because it’s stigmatised, people don’t want to say they’ve had it and had a great experience,” he said.
“But because we don’t hear those messages, the stigma continues.”
Positive about the future
Months later, Meredith Campbell is opening up about her experience.
She hopes her story will help her community understand how common mental illness is, and how it can affect anyone.
“But also, I want to say why I was absent from public life for so long, with no explanation, just a thunderous silence,” she said.
Looking back, Ms Campbell doesn’t want to repeat those dark months but is also grateful for what she learned.
“It’s just part of my life story. And in a way, I’ve benefited from it,” she said.
“It gave me a lot of insights into my capacity, and also the capacity of others around me, especially my family and dear friends to help.
“I think the future is going to be beautiful and bright.”
Editor’s Note (12/27/23): While Meredith Campbell has had success with electroconvulsive therapy, all mental health care should be done in consultation with your own medical team.
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