Brent O'Brien is the producer and "third wheel" on the Matt and Ramona Show. He has privately battled depression and anxiety for 20 years and has recently decided to go public about his fight in an effort to help beat the stigma surrounding mental illness Alex Kormann The Charlotte Observer
Brent O'Brien is the producer and "third wheel" on the Matt and Ramona Show. He has privately battled depression and anxiety for 20 years and has recently decided to go public about his fight in an effort to help beat the stigma surrounding mental illness Alex Kormann The Charlotte Observer

Theoden Janes

On the radio, he brings life to the party. Off it, mental illness nearly killed him.

July 04, 2017 10:45 PM

Since the day a dozen years ago when Brent Harlan officially became a regular supporting funnyman on 107.9 The Link’s “The Matt & Ramona Show,” the airwaves have been his happy place.

It’s not just that he really loves his job; it’s that, at times, his workplace and his colleagues were literally the only things that made him happy.

“I’d get in the studio, the mics would turn on and ... it was almost like I could become someone else for a moment and just put all those cares, all that worry, all that frustration, all that sadness and anger and all the negative emotions aside and have four hours of therapy. Of laughing,” says Harlan, 37, better-known as Brent O’Brien (his radio name) and perhaps best-known as “Bandy,” or “Bandy Boo” (nicknames given to him by the Charlotte afternoon show’s hosts, Matt Harris and Ramona Holloway).

For decades, Harlan battled major depressive and anxiety disorders in intensely private ways – often with antidepressants and intense psychotherapy, but occasionally in catastrophic fashion: a bender that ended with him dropping out of Appalachian State before his freshman year was over, or a breakup with a girlfriend that belongs near the top of any list of “How Not to Break Up With Your Girlfriend.”

And while one of the hallmarks of the show is the personalities putting themselves out there, warts and all, “Bandy” never went there.

“Matt and Ramona have said, ‘We all have issues,’ in a very light-hearted way,” Harlan says, “and I’ve always talked about things like my sleep issues on the air openly. But I never specifically mentioned depression because of the stigma involved with it. I was always kind of leery of, ‘Could this hurt my career?’ 

Then, just under a month ago, as he prepared to begin a six-week program at Novant Health centering around NeuroStar transcranial magnetic stimulation – an FDA-approved form of non-invasive brain therapy known to improve symptoms of depression – Harlan posted this on his Facebook page, entirely out of the blue:

“I finally start my TMS Therapy (transcranial magnetic stimulation) for my major depression and anxiety tomorrow...here’s hoping all goes well and that every time my wife Mary turns on the microwave, I don’t piss my pants and forget who I am for about half an hour.”

“You know, a line from ‘Christmas Vacation,’ ” he says. (Credit goes to Randy Quaid’s Uncle Eddie.) So why’d he decide to go public?

Brent O’Brien, who has struggled with depression for 20 years, is more than halfway through a six-week treatment program of transcranial magnetic stimulation at Novant Health. The treatment sends electromagnetic waves into a targeted area of the brain in order to stimulate certain chemicals in the brain that regulate mood.
Alex Kormann akormann@charlotteobserver.com

“I came to the realization: Who cares?” says Harlan, who has quickly amassed a legion of supporters as he’s documented his experiences with TMS in detail on social media; last week, he reached the halfway point of the program.

“There are other people out there who are suffering with depression in silence, who are afraid to come out, because of the stigma, and it’s not until we start having these tough conversations where we are able to talk about our issues and those low moments that are embarrassing. I mean, it took me forever just to admit that I tried to commit suicide.”

A sign that something wasn’t right

Before he was “Bandy,” Brent Harlan was born and mostly raised in Kentucky, the son of a preacher and a teacher.

His dad, the preacher, was a church planter. When Harlan was a teenager, a church needed to be planted in Charlotte, so the family moved here, and Harlan was enrolled at Independence High School. He proceeded to earn straight As ... until one day, it all kind of just stopped.

He lost interest in sports, in friends, in school. He couldn’t concentrate in class, so he stopped going. He couldn’t sleep, so he stopped trying. During the second half of his senior year, the As turned into Ds, then the Ds turned into Fs.

Finally, he collapsed from exhaustion and woke up at a psychiatric hospital in Rock Hill with a diagnosis that would threaten to define him for the rest of his life – depression – and a prescription for Remeron, the first of dozens of different types of antidepressants he would be prescribed over the next two decades.

With slightly renewed optimism, he followed through on his plans to attend Appalachian State University, but he found himself crippled by concentration issues, social anxiety and an overall feeling of hopelessness.

When I’d go home at night, it would all come crashing back like a wave – the depression, the loneliness, the hopelessness, the ‘I’m never gonna make anything of myself.’ It takes you to the most negative places, to the thoughts of ‘What’s the point of any of this? Maybe I’d be better off dead.’

Brent Harlan

Alcohol was his friend, until it became his enemy.

“One night (after partying too hard) I passed out in the bed of a guy’s pickup truck, and it started pouring down rain,” Harlan says. “Woke up the next morning completely drenched ... It was one of those rock-bottom moments, and I said to myself, ‘Brent, you’re heading back down a dark path right now.’ My go-to instinct at that point was, ‘I need my support network.’ ... That’s when I packed my stuff up and drove home.’ 

He would never return to college.

A radio gig ... then a trip to rock-bottom

Back in Charlotte, Harlan started working as a courier full-time as he tried to sort out his life (and as he continued his search for the right blend of medication and psychiatric counseling).

Around the same time was introduced to the radio business via a friend of his father’s: WBT anchor Jim Barroll.

Barroll pulled some strings to get Harlan an internship at the station that turned into a part-time job as a board operator and call screener. After The Link brought him over to work part-time on the weekends, he volunteered to help produce the new-to-Charlotte “Matt & Ramona Show,” landing there full-time in 2003.

By 2005, he’d worked his way into the “third-wheel” role. How? Simple, Ramona Holloway says: “He’s funny as hell.”

“It was actually Matt (Harris, left) who came up with ‘Bandy,’ because he had a hard time getting my name right,” says Brent Harlan, right, whose radio name is Brent O’Brien. “He called me Buster Boyd Bridge at one point. Baby Boo. Baby Boy. Bruno Byron. ... The wheel of abuse constantly spins to one of us, but at the time I was good, easy pickings.”
Alex Kormann akormann@charlotteobserver.com

Matt and Ramona made him laugh. He made Matt and Ramona laugh. Together, the three made listeners laugh. From 3-7 p.m. every weekday, the show provided a sense of calm and happiness that none of the antidepressants could consistently produce.

“Going in and being able to forget my real-life problems, and start talking about Paris Hilton, or celebrity gossip or relationship stuff, it was a distraction from it all,” Harlan says. “But when I’d go home at night, it would all come crashing back like a wave – the depression, the loneliness, the hopelessness, the ‘I’m never gonna make anything of myself.’ 

“It takes you to the most negative places, to the thoughts of ‘What’s the point of any of this? Maybe I’d be better off dead.’ 

Again, alcohol was his friend, until (again) it became his enemy.

One night in 2007, in the midst of a bad breakup, he had the bartender pour a few too many and then got behind the wheel. As he approached a stoplight on the way home, he threw up on himself and struck another car with his truck; after calling 911 on himself, police arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence.

From there, he hit rock-bottom – not from shame or worry that he’d lose his job, but guilt over the fact that he could have killed someone. He bought a gun, and two nights later, put the barrel of it into his mouth.

“And the thing that stopped me was looking down at my dog,” Harlan says.

This new guilt overrode that other guilt.

“I just thought, ‘Who’s gonna take care of Toby?’ ... Then I started thinking, ‘If my parents have to come over to my house and they find me with a gunshot wound to my head, how’s this gonna affect them?’ Then I started in with the whole beating myself up, the negative self-talk, where I’m like, ‘How dare you even consider this? This is such a selfish act. Why don’t you take into account how other people are gonna feel?’ 

He laid the gun down, picked up the phone. “Mom? Dad? I need help.”

For the second time in his life, he was checked into a psychiatric hospital; this time, they took his belt and his shoelaces.

A disappearing act ... and a second chance

Harlan describes the actual feeling of his depression as “a fog – a constant negative viewpoint towards the world.”

With it, he says, came overwhelming feelings of guilt. Guilt over having a good life, a good job, parents who cared, people who loved him. Guilt over lying to friends and family about his mental health. Guilt if the house was a mess but he didn’t have the energy to clean. Guilt if he wasn’t following his doctor’s orders to a T.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, an estimated 16.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This number represented 6.7 percent of all U.S. adults.

In addition to the two hospitalizations, over the years Harlan has had a total of five certified cognitive therapists (often meeting with them up to five times a week) and been through a dozen psychiatrists, who have given him prescriptions for about 30 different antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

Oftentimes, they would work for a period of several months, then their effectiveness would subside. He was constantly experiencing side effects from new medications, and/or withdrawal symptoms after abandoning old ones.

But he was trying. He started flirting with a flight attendant named Mary Kenney from Davie County near Winston-Salem on Facebook – who happened to be a listener of the show, and who happened to think he was hilarious. They became fast friends online, and started dating in real life. Kenney felt pretty sure he was The One; she was pretty sure he felt the same way.

Then he just ... disappeared on her, almost completely.

“I wrote him a message and said, ‘If I didn’t hear you on the radio, I would have thought that you were dead,’ ” she recalls. “After a couple of weeks, he replied and just said, ‘It didn’t work out for me. Let’s move on like adults.’ That’s all I got. ... It was devastating. I did not expect to ever hear from him again.”

Turns out Harlan had been grappling with guilt again, and this time, it was over the fear of making her suffer through his illness, which he hadn’t yet fully explained to her. It wasn’t until a year later, as he was working through intense and frequent therapy sessions, that he realized that he owed her an apology.

He wrote her one; she accepted it. Then he laid out all of his issues; she accepted those, too, and saw he was newly committed to own self-improvement. The spark was re-kindled.

In September of 2015, they were married. But it wasn’t “happily ever after” quite yet.

A new hope for a better tomorrow

“It’s been a real big up and down,” Mary Harlan says. “When there’s stress – like, if there’s money stress in your life – there are so many things that trigger and make things worse with depression and anxiety. Alternatively, you can have everything going right and you could be in a very happy place and something could hit him that could lead to a depressed episode.”

Eager to find him some relief, she started looking into alternative medicines and treatments and stumbled upon transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, which is typically used when other depression treatments haven’t been effective.

Harlan was referred into Novant Health’s TMS program by his psychiatrist, and after spending a year on the waiting list (which is much shorter now, hospital officials say), he underwent his first treatments on June 8.

So, how does it work? TMS is a non-invasive procedure “similar to an MRI,” says Dr. Darlene Ifill-Taylor, who is outpatient medical director for behavioral health at Novant Health and serves as Harlan’s TMS psychiatrist.

Brent Harlan gets ready to receive his TMS treatment with the help of Novant Health coordinator-treater John Winn. Though it’s mostly painless, there can be some mild discomfort – the magnetic pulses give patients the sensation that they’re being tapped on the head.
Alex Kormann akormann@charlotteobserver.com

A full course of treatment takes time: Patients submit to a 37-minute round of magnetic pulses – via an electromagnetic coil placed on his or her head – once a day, five days a week, for four to six weeks. The science of course is much more complicated than this, but in layman’s terms, Ifill-Taylor says: “TMS uses magnetic waves to stimulate the areas of the brain that we also stimulate with antidepressants to improve mood.”

How does TMS differ from ECT (electroconvulsive therapy)? In short, whereas TMS uses a magnet to activate the brain and is performed with the patient fully awake, ECT is done under general anesthesia and uses an electric current.

Harlan has just over two weeks left in his six-week treatment plan, and with every Facebook post about his progress, he appears to be more buoyed. Certainly, his friends and family are as optimistic as they’ve ever been.

“I think probably 10 times a day he says, ‘I can’t believe how good I feel,’ ” Mary Harlan says. “He talks about the lightness in his head. That weight on the top of his brain, where he’s always felt pressure, he said, is gone. ... It was pretty much night and day after two treatments.

“He still has a ways to go, because he still has moments of anxiety that pop back in, but I think it’s just because he’s only halfway through. I mean, he’s definitely behaving now as if he’s on a new medication that’s working wonders for him.”

Adds his on-air co-worker and off-air friend Ramona Holloway: “It’s been crazy watching Bandy go through the treatment and the response to it. ... After he started putting his updates on his private Facebook page, I asked him if he would be OK with me sharing it to The Link page and to ‘The Matt & Ramona’ page, and he was like, ‘Yeah sure, because if this works, people should know about it.’

“Next thing you know, it becomes the most clicked-on thing on our website. It’s the most popular thing that we post on Facebook every day. ... He went one day without updating and I was getting all these messages from people saying, ‘Bandy didn’t put an update up today, is everything OK with Bandy?’ 

Mary and Brent Harlan enjoy a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., this past March.
Courtesy of Brent Harlan

Oh, and the answer, if you’re one of those who’s wondering, is that – for now – yes, everything is OK with Bandy. More OK than it’s been in a long time.

“In the past month,” he says, “my creativity has gone to a whole ’nother level. My thought processes are so much sharper. ... The humor, the thinking faster on my feet, the proactiveness that I feel, has made my job so much easier.”

But work is no longer Harlan’s only happy place.

“(Before starting TMS) I would come home after a show and be so exhausted, or have nothing left for my wife. I would be talked out. But now I come home from work and I’m feeling energetic, and I feel like telling her about what happened at work today. I don’t just come home and sit in front of the TV and eat and go to bed. I’m coming home and I’m living my life outside of the studio, whereas before I was only pretty much living in the studio.

“It’s really just been the most awesome, surreal experience, to be living without depression for the first time in 20 years. Seriously: I haven’t felt like this since I was a kid.”

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

What is TMS?

TMS, short for transcranial magnetic stimulation, is an FDA-approved, non-invasive, non-drug depression treatment that uses magnetic pulses (similar to those used by MRI machines) to stimulate areas of the brain that are understimulated in depression sufferers.

Brent “Bandy” (O’Brien) Harlan has been receiving outpatient treatment at the Novant Health Psychiatric Associates office (1900 Randolph Road, Suite 800), which uses NeuroStar TMS Therapy equipment. His treatment plan involves 37-minute sessions five days a week for six weeks; he can drive himself to and from the facility, he’s awake and alert during the treatments, and he can work immediately afterwards.

The most common side effect is pain or discomfort at or near the treatment site. Harlan says he experienced migraine-like headaches and severe exhaustion during the first week or two; those ailments have subsided.

Harlan says doctors will evaluate him at the end of the 30 therapy sessions and make a determination as to whether or not the depression and anxiety are in full remission. If successful, the antidepressent effect generally lasts at least one year; in Novant Health’s two years of doing TMS, so far very few patients have returned for “maintenance” sessions.

TMS is typically recommended for depression sufferers who have not had success with antidepression medication. Patients need a prescription along with a referral from their doctor or psychiatrist.

Because of limited availability of equipment and technicians, there is typically a waiting list for TMS therapy.

At present, TMS is covered by most major insurance companies.

Novant Health has treated at least 30 patients in the TMS program’s first two years of existence, says its outpatient director for behavioral health, Dr. Darlene Ifill-Taylor: “We have not had a patient not have a positive response to TMS.”

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