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Column: Remission from major depressive disorder is possible

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Daily Tar Heel photo editor Kennedy Cox and her dog, Gaston, sit on the quad on Oct. 12, 2022.

This column is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.


I was 12 years old when I was first prescribed antidepressants. Growing up is difficult on its own, but growing up with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and trying to manage it with medication was an exhausting battle that I was not expecting to encounter — especially at such an early age.

Major depressive disorder is one of the most common psychiatric disorders, with a median age of onset of 26 years old. 

Psychotherapy and medication, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are the recommended treatments for MDD upon initial diagnosis.

My teenage years had been an endless cycle of trying a medication, feeling “okay” for a few weeks, feeling symptoms return and increasing my dosage. When the increased dosage didn’t work, I’d try another medication. By my first semester at UNC, I had tried and failed four different antidepressants and had given up on psychotherapy.

Two weeks after my 19th birthday, I found myself on the floor of my father’s office with my head against the wall, lamenting, “My brain isn’t working,” to my parents. I thought I had run out of possible solutions, and I felt completely helpless.

After countless nights of research, my mom sent me an article about transcranial magnetic stimulation.

TMS is a noninvasive brain treatment that stimulates underactive nerve cells in the brain with magnetic fields. It is FDA-approved for patients with treatment-resistant depression who have not experienced success from other treatments. 

With very little hope, I decided to pursue this option. We found a neuropsychiatrist in Durham who evaluated me and determined that I was a good candidate for TMS. Because I failed four different classes of antidepressants, my treatments were covered by insurance.

TMS was a daunting commitment. 

Five days a week for eight weeks, I would go to an outpatient facility and sit through uncomfortable 30-minute treatment sessions with a TMS-certified technician. Each Monday morning, I would wake up at 7:30 a.m. and drive 2 1/2 hours to my first treatment. I stayed in my aunt’s house in Durham with my mom and after a full week of treatment, I’d drive back home for a sense of normalcy on the weekends.

The first few sessions were incredibly difficult. The magnetic pulses felt like a woodpecker on my forehead, and I’d leave with tears welling in my eyes. I felt like I was torturing myself for no reason, but I stuck with my commitment.

Eventually, the sessions became more bearable.

I was initially in denial about feeling better because I was so used to a natural state of feeling down. Before treatment, any happy or positive moment was a moment that I struggled to embrace because I always knew that it would pass. Happiness was an unfamiliar feeling, and the things that brought me joy as a child failed to amuse me as I got older.

One day, while eavesdropping on my mom talking on the phone, I heard her say one sentence that made me realize that I was getting better:

“She’s singing again.”

I have always loved to sing. Music was my best friend for the longest time, and singing was an escape for me. As my mental health started to decline, so did my urge to sing. I hadn’t even noticed that I had started to sing again during my time in treatment, and that’s how I knew that I was getting better.

The remaining weeks flew by as my spirits grew higher. My smile grew wider, my laughs grew louder and my confidence grew stronger. 

At the end of each week, I would fill out a Patient Health Questionnaire-9 to measure the severity of my symptoms and my progress. After I filled out my final PHQ-9 on Jan. 5, 2021, my neuropsychiatrist told me that I was officially in remission. That drive home was the most exciting drive of my entire life.

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Kennedy Cox sings along to "Ghost Town" by Kanye West in her car with her dog, Gaston, after her last day of treatment on Jan. 5, 2021. The most important lyric to her is the outro, "And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kind of free."

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If you had told me 10 years ago that I would one day be free from the symptoms of MDD, I wouldn't have believed you. I believed that medication and psychotherapy were my only options, and that if those options couldn’t help me, then nothing could.

Three years later, I can confidently say that I am still in remission. Having this “new mind” definitely has its own set of challenges, and I am still learning to be this new version of myself that is happy, confident and secure. 

Treatment for mental illness doesn't end at just medication and psychotherapy. I know what it feels like to believe that happiness is impossible. Knowing now that I can say “I am happy” out loud and mean it, has made all the difference.

@kennedymarcox

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com


Kennedy Cox

Kennedy Cox is the 2023-24 photo editor at The Daily Tar Heel She has previously served as co-editor of the photo desk. Kennedy is a senior pursuing a political science degree.