You’ll Be Hearing a Lot About Ketamine
—by Talia Knowles—
For those struggling with depression, the answer may be in sight. In recent years, ketamine, an anaesthetic drug typically used in surgeries, has successfully provided relief from depression, PTSD, and other mental ailments. Though still in its pioneering stages, any possibility of the long awaited “cure for depression,” is worth investigation.
Despite the vast amount of people battling depression, there has yet to be a medical treatment that does more than alleviate the symptoms of mental illness. Though some patients do find relief in conventional medications, for many, the looming future of pills and therapy sessions may stretch into a disheartening eternity. Even as the mental health revolution normalizes strategies for dealing with mental illness, the stigma of these sorts of difficulties can be difficult to overcome. If pills are perceived as a source of shame, it is no wonder that more intense treatments remain taboo, especially when administered through an IV drip. However, with depression as the most prevalent form of disability worldwide, it may be time to turn to unconventional solutions.
Some doctors and mental health specialists have lauded ketamine the new miracle drug that will revolutionize mental health treatment. Though some argue that its addictive qualities may lead to drug addiction, most acknowledge that this risk is no greater than that of any potentially addictive painkiller. The high price point of ketamine also bars the formation of a recreational drug habit. However, the question of accessibility strikes a chord with many: though depression knows no social classes, ketamine infusions are not covered by insurance and cost $500-$800 each, leaving many patients unable to afford even a trial run of ketamine therapy.
Ketamine is by no means a panacea for all patients dealing with mental illness. However, those who have experienced shockingly positive results from their treatments often maintain that a cure for depression, even if not long-term, is worth whatever high price tag accompanies it. A typical ketamine treatment involves consultation, five to eight sessions of IV administration, and repeated maintenance, as the effectiveness of the treatment typically wears off within a few weeks. Though a permanent solution would be ideal, the only common side effect of the actual infusion is a pleasant sense of dissociation, which fades within a few hours and leaves patients energized and optimistic.
Some context on traditional treatments for depression may be helpful in understanding the ketamine revolution. Many antidepressants make use of SSRI’s, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. In an interview with Psycom, Dr. Steven Levine explained that ketamine “works differently from an SSRI such as Lexapro or Zoloft. It’s a totally different mechanism.” SSRI’s work to address chemical imbalance in the brain, increasing serotonin levels to combat depression. However, Dr. Levine believes this was based on a false assumption. Rather than chemical imbalance, he argues that “depression is linked to the build up of proteins in the brain—ketamine can repair damage to the brain that are the result of long-term stress hormones. The body’s response to stress spills cortisol and other hormones in the brain and they damage it in the process.” Ketamine, Dr. Levine says, “is thought to have much more rapid effects on increasing brain plasticity.” Ketamine also does not cause weight gain or the muted feeling that sometimes accompanies antidepressants like Zoloft and Lexapro.
The road to a cure for depression is paved with anecdotal evidence, and many glowing testimonials lend credibility to a treatment still in its early stages. After three years of various medications and treatments with little relief, and a plummet to mental “rock bottom,” one patient decided to try ketamine. He writes:
The ordeal entailed an IV being attached to my arm, a comfy reclined chair with an ocean view, and noise-canceling headphones. I held the belief that there was no cure for my brain, and that this was going to be another waste of time. However, all of a sudden everything changed. My body started to feel like a body, when before it was more of a fleshy thing I had some vague responsibility for. I remember looking at my hands, the ocean, then closing my eyes and thinking, “this is okay,” with a feeling of immense appreciation for everyone and everything. I burst out in tears when the nurse told me the treatment was over, overwhelmed by gratefulness towards this standard, yet kind procedure. I had a total of 6 such sessions, each one pushing me closer and closer to what I can only describe as a deep gratitude for feeling human, a sensation that had been incredibly alien to me for years. The effects of the treatment lasted a good 6 months before I returned to my previous state. I haven’t done ketamine since, as my insurance changed and my parents aren’t exactly thrilled to spend money on treatments that won’t “cure” me.
This individual’s experience seems to be fairly common across the board. Many patients have cited ketamine treatment as the stimulus that brought them back to themselves, with energy to get out of bed in the morning and rebuild meaningful relationships with loved ones. A broad sweep of positive testimonials reveals profound gratitude for ketamine therapy, even as patients acknowledge that the effects of the treatment are not permanent, with many returning every few months for boosters. Unfortunately, as in the case of the patient above, the high cost of ketamine can often deter eligible candidates from testing out the drug, or continuing to enjoy its benefits long term.
Ketamine may have the potential to revolutionize the world of mental health. When insurance companies begin to prioritize psychological well being as well as physical healthcare, it is likely that pioneering treatments like ketamine infusion will finally receive the funding they need to make their maximum impact on suffering patients. Though there is still a long way to go, the gradual normalization of mental healthcare and its treatments, whether pharmaceutical or therapeutic, bodes well for a future cure for depression and similar conditions. The category of life-saving medications has not typically included those that target mental well-being, but any treatment with potential to prevent suicide and dramatically improve quality of life has earned its place among the ranks of humanitarian medical victories.
Talia Knowles is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara, CA
Also see: Women’s Health article