MUSC doc: Suicidal thoughts treatable with new tools, technology

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - In the wake of Robin Williams' death, many are asking if his suicide could have been prevented. Doctors at Medical University of South Carolina say suicidal thoughts are a brain dysfunction that's treatable with new technology offered in the Lowcountry.

"We now realize it's an abnormal brain state, suicidal crisis is," said Dr. Mark George, a professor of psychiatry, radiology and neurology. "It's a distorted brain state where people can't actually make the right calculations."

George says he has researched treatment for suicidal thoughts for the last 20 years. He says there is technology that allows doctors to assess the function of the brain.

"We put people in the scanner who are struggling with suicide and we have them recall their struggles with suicide. And we find that very specific parts of the brain aren't working right," said George.

Now George is one of the few in the country who use magnetic stimulation as a treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts. George also says an anesthetic drug can have rapid effects for those suffering.

"There's a new compound called Ketamine that's used to get people to sleep," said George. "If we give you not enough to put you to sleep but just enough to make you woozy, we can make people un-suicidal within a couple of hours. That convincingly shows this is a brain state that people are in."

According to George, transcranial magnetic stimulation is an electro-treatment that tickles or stimulates the part of the brain that is not working. As part of his research, George says the treatment's success rate was tested on a group of veterans suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.

"Within a day, we cut their suicide ratings in half of people who got the treatment. So, it really is a brain disease and there are effective ways of getting people out of that crisis," he said.

George says just like there are different levels and types of depression, there are also different levels to suicidal thinking.

"There's passive thinking where you would say, 'Life's really crummy. If I'm crossing the street and there's a big bus coming, I'm not going to really speed up to get out of the way. It'd be okay if the bus hit me.' That's not a crisis," said George. "You don't really need to do anything about that than help somebody get treatment. If they actually do say, 'Life is terrible and I'm actually thinking about going up and doing something terrible,' then that's when you say, 'Hey, let's get you safe,' increase medications, take them to the emergency room."

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts and you would like to see George as a patient, you can be referred by a psychiatrist or call 876-5141.