Mother's Lifelong Depression Cured After Stroke

By Kelly Burch 03/14/18

"She cannot be sure what she had for lunch yesterday, but she is quite certain she does not have depression. Never has." 

Cheerful senior mother and adult daughter together

For people with chronic and treatment-resistant depression, hope can be illusive. They stumble through an array of treatment—from exercise to electroconvulsive therapy to counseling appointments—and eventually feel that nothing will be able to help them escape the grip of depression. 

That was the case for Anthea Rowan’s mother—until she had a stroke. 

“Until the moment she had her stroke—a massive brain trauma to her left occipital lobe—Mum had been in a major depressive episode that had endured for two years, the longest stretch ever,” Rowan wrote for The Washington Post. “Yet in the post-stroke rehab ward, I find her engaging with other patients in a way she has not done for years. She is animated… the antithesis of the lethargy that hamstrung her for so long.”

Rowan set out to find out how her mother had changed so drastically following the stroke. In addition to affecting her ability to read and remember names, the stroke had also taken away Rowan’s mother’s struggle with depression. The results have lasted years. 

“And now, 2½ years after her stroke, she is happier than I recall seeing her in 40 years,” Rowan writes. 

Karen Postal, a clinical instructor of neuropsychology at Harvard Medical School and president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, said that the alleviation of the depression likely had to do with the other ways that the stroke affected Rowan’s mother’s cognition. 

“Depression is not just an emotional state, it’s a thinking state, it’s about habits of thinking… and yes, ruminating,” Postal told Rowan. The stroke had changed how her mother’s brain works, interrupting positive function, like her ability to read, but also negative function, including her depressive thinking habits. 

Postal said that as research into the brain advances, doctors will be better able to understand how strokes and other shocks to the brain system can affect depression. Although electroconvulsive therapy and other brain-stimulating techniques are highly effective for treating some mental health issues, doctors aren’t exactly sure why.

Because of that, understanding the effects of stroke and other brain traumas could potentially lead to better treatments for depression. 

“The more sophisticated we get in our research, the more we recognize that brain function is holistic, interconnected by highly complicated networks working together to produce what we label as mood, thinking, language,” Postal said. 

Rowan’s mother hasn’t just been relieved of depression symptoms—she’s also forgotten about her lifelong struggle with the disease. 

“But I don’t have depression, she says, her eyes snapping up at me. She cannot be sure what she had for lunch yesterday, but she is quite certain she does not have depression,” Rowan writes. “Never has. Today she knows she never had depression. Tomorrow she may remember a little of the illness that stole decades of her life away.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.