How the Party Drug Ketamine is Helping Battle Severe Depression - NBC4 Washington
Changing Minds

Changing Minds

How the Party Drug Ketamine is Helping Battle Severe Depression

The FDA has also approved a nasal spray which has a compound similar to ketamine to treat depression

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    Party Drug Could Give People with Depression New Hope

    Ketamine was once famous as an abused party drug. Now, it is being administered to patients with depression, providing them with relief within hours. (Published Monday, May 20, 2019)

    There haven't been many options to quickly help people who go to the emergency room because they're suicidal. But now the FDA has approved an old drug called ketamine for a new use, and it's already helping patients who haven't responded to other anti-depressants or treatments.

    "I wasn't even living, I was just a shell of a person showing up," said Kellie Mason.

    "It's scary "You can feel like you're in a fog, like you're a zombie."

    Kellie Mason and Katie Bathersfield both struggle with treatment-resistant depression and thoughts of suicide.

    "Suicide was always kind of there for me because I felt so miserable," Bathersfield said. "I felt so trapped, trapped in your own mind."

    Bathersfield, a stay-at-home mother of two girls, says she sometimes couldn't get out of bed, crippled by her feelings of hopelessness. She says she and her doctors tried 30 different medications. Nothing helped, until her psychiatrist recommended she try ketamine — a party drug with the street name Special K. She says the improvement was immediate.

    "I felt happy, I felt so light," Bathersfield said. "I remember walking to the car and I couldn't believe that I ever thought that suicide was something that was OK. That's something that I lived with for 17 years."

    Mason, who was diagnosed with PTSD after several deployments with the Army, says she "tried everything" and nothing worked, until she began receiving ketamine infusions.

    Mason had been haunted by her past and went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for help. She also struggled through different drugs and treatments that left her feeling even more troubled.

    "As soon as I received the infusion, I just felt happy," she said. "It just felt like I was floating. The intrusive thoughts that I was having dissipated. I was able to think one thought at a time."

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    Clinical trials found that ketamine, administered in controlled doses in a doctor's office, could help many others with severe hopeless depression.

    In March, the FDA approved a ketamine nasal spray called esketamine. Side effects include dizziness, nausea and an unpleasant feeling of dissociation, Reuters reported, citing the company.

    "It acts through a different area in the brain than what most typical depressants are acting," said Dr. Erica Richards, the medical director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Sibley Memorial Hospital and who took part in the clinical trials.

    She calls the treatment a game changer because ketamine is the first depression drug that can work quickly, within hours. All other anti-depressants available can take six to eight weeks to find out if they work or not.

    "What we're noticing is that not only is the relief or the improvement from the depression happening, it's actually sustained," Richards said. "It's lasting for longer as well."

    For Bathersfield and Mason, the drug has given them hope, and they say it's helping them apply the tools they've learned in therapy to deal with life's highs and lows.

    "I feel so happy, I feel free," Bathersfield said. "I look forward to waking up every day. I look forward to life. I look forward to the future."

    The women we spoke to received four ketamine treatments through IV infusions, but the FDA-approved version is a nasal spray which has a compound similar to ketamine. Ketamine has been around for years. It's been used safely as an anesthetic in the operating room since the 60s, but it has also been abused as a party drug.

    Doctors say ketamine is safe when given in low dosages and in a medical setting. The treatment is also supposed to be used with an anti-depressant medication, though it may not be fully covered by insurance.

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