By Patrick O’Neil
Every few years a new study is conducted or a different treatment method arises for addressing addiction, depression, and anxiety—and in almost every instance its proponents loudly and confidently proclaim that they have found the new cure. Numerous doctors, therapists, and rehabs then jump on the bandwagon in a renewed effort to help those suffering from substance abuse and depression that are desperately trying to get free from their addiction, mental health, or both. Most of these new methods are worthy of exploring and monitoring to determine if they do help. However, some are just fads, or misguided efforts to hasten the therapeutic process in a kinder or gentler way.
One of the latest such “miracle cures” to hit the ground running is ketamine—an anesthesia medicine created in the ‘60s that was used on wounded soldiers in the Vietnam War to help ease pain. Categorized as a “dissociative anesthetic,” it comes in powder or liquid and can be injected, snorted, or smoked. Ketamine is most commonly used as an animal tranquilizer, and was placed on the list of controlled substances in the United States in 1999. When abused ketamine can change your sense of sight and sound and you hallucinate. “‘Falling into a k-hole’ is slang for how it feels when you take a high enough dose of ketamine that your awareness of the world around you and your control over your own body become so profoundly impaired that you’re temporarily unable to interact with others,” writes Dr. Elizabeth Hartney. “One way to think about a k-hole is a state between intoxication and a coma.” Because of this “k-hole” affect, ketamine has also been used as a date-rape drug.
Yet as “Science continues to analyze and explore new ways to look at how traditionally used medicinal substances can be used for addiction recovery,” writes Dr. Adi Jaffe in his pro-ketamine article for Psychology Today, “Ketamine is one of those drugs [that is] showing promise for helping to treat alcohol addiction and mental health conditions.” At first glance this information is very encouraging, especially for someone who has been struggling with addiction and has not been successful with traditional treatment approaches. However what’s not being said is that Ketamine in itself is a highly addictive narcotic. And unlike other medication assisted treatments, such as suboxone or naltrexone, when abused the addict can still get high off ketamine.
“One of the major concerns with the idea of using ketamine as a form of treatment is the fact that ketamine itself is an addictive substance,” writes clinical therapist Erica Smith. “Experts state that the addiction is psychological in nature, meaning that people will experience severe cravings but they will not necessarily experience serious physical responses when the use of the drug stops. Regardless of whether it is psychological or physical, the dependence that a person develops on the drug will make the addiction extremely difficult to overcome. While it is encouraging to see how professionals in the field are expanding the treatment options available to people, the problem lies in the fact that such ‘quick fixes’ are just that: quick fixes. In order to truly beat depression, and receive permanent results, people must get to the root of the problem.”
Clinical researchers Melvyn W. Zhang and Dr. Roger C. M. Ho echo Smith’s concerns. Their study on ketamine for The Royal College of Psychiatrists warns that, “Researchers are selectively focusing on the artificial mood elevation of ketamine, forgetting the long-term risk associated with its misuse and the fact that depression is a chronic illness. If ketamine causes addiction in patients with depression, the dual diagnosis will increase the healthcare burden.”
Reporter Carole Tanzer Miller further states, “Low, intravenous doses have been found to boost mood and curb suicidal thoughts, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved it as a treatment for depression. And the American Psychiatric Association (APA) warns patients about the potential for abuse and the lack of large, long-term studies of its effectiveness.” Meanwhile the Internet is full of “ketamine centers” offering relief from addiction and medication assisted therapy for depression. “The lack of information is really quite dramatic when you look at the proliferation of use in certain communities,” said former APA President Dr. Alan Schatzberg. “We just don’t know about whether people will develop tolerance, whether there is a risk for dependence, whether there are unidentified side effects—there are no data on use of ketamine beyond four weeks. We could be exposing people to untoward consequences from a drug that works through an opioid mechanism. We need to study it more.”
“Although it can be an effective treatment for rapidly reducing symptoms of depression, we don’t yet know enough about its potential negative consequences, especially from long-term use, for me to recommend it as an option for most patients,” reports Dr. Bryan Bruno, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “The main drawbacks, are that the beneficial effects of the drug wear off after 7 to 10 days, so most patients have to get infusions on a regular basis. Some research studies have demonstrated that it can be toxic to brain cells and cause bladder damage, especially at higher doses. It can also cause psychotic-like symptoms during the treatment.”
Because ketamine has such a high potential for abuse, there are major concerns for cross addiction—where a person that is addicted to one drug is at a higher risk to developing an addiction to another drug. Drug rehab centers such as CAST Centers have recently seen an increase in clients seeking help for their ketamine addiction that started as a result of ketamine therapy for either mental health or an addiction to other drugs. “My addiction to ketamine ultimately led to me becoming homeless,” writes former ketamine addict Nathan Harmer, “I don’t want others to end up like I did. We need much more support for young people battling the mental health issues that make them feel like using drugs like ketamine which are all about an escape from the outside world. Addiction is an illness and it needs to be treated as such. I honestly can’t stress enough that if I had the support I needed before doing it then I’d never have become addicted to it.”