Promoting Ketamine as Depression Treatment Ignores the Addictive Nature of the Drug
Depression drugs primarily treat the symptoms of depression, not their root cause. While this can appeal to patients who feel powerless to address the root cause of their depression, it does not overcome the fact that an antidepressant treatment plan essentially consigns a patient to indefinite treatment. Further, the fact that such drugs often have harmful side effects increases concern over whether such a treatment model is wise.
When ketamine is considered for use as an antidepressant treatment, concerns over harm and attendant risk are more than warranted.
What Some Researchers Are Saying About Ketamine and Depression
Researchers in behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston sought to determine if patients with difficult-to-treat depression could benefit from treatments using ketamine-variant drugs. The drug used in the study is called esketamine. The researchers analyzed 300 patients who were given three infusions of esketamine at an outpatient clinic. The patients were primarily men, around the age of 40, and all were patients who had not responded well to at least two types of antidepressant treatments in the past.
Results were mixed among the study participants, but some reported feeling better after esketamine infusions. However, the researchers admitted they did not know why patients felt better. They said more research was needed to replicate the positive feelings in patients without exposing them to risks of ketamine side effects or addiction.
But What Is Ketamine?
The critical finding in the research was that ketamine might be effective in “treating” depression because ketamine blocks sensitization, which is a human being’s ability to respond to certain stimuli in a sensitive manner. People who suffer from depression often feel overly sensitized, and because ketamine blocks sensitization, it is theorized ketamine may be used to treat depression.
Unfortunately, ketamine’s sensitization-blocking properties also incentivize drug users and addicts to take the drug, suggesting depression patients may be at especially high risk of taking too much or too often. Further, when used to excess, ketamine can cause hallucinations, another aspect of the drug that causes people to seek it out for recreational purposes.
“Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic with some hallucinogenic effects. It distorts perceptions of sight and sound and makes the user feel disconnected and not in control...”
The risk for misuse and harmful side effects is so dire that the Drug Enforcement Agency released several warnings regarding it. In April 2020, DEA authors wrote, “Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic with some hallucinogenic effects. It distorts perceptions of sight and sound and makes the user feel disconnected and not in control. It is an injectable, short-acting anesthetic for use in humans and animals. It is called a ‘dissociative anesthetic’ because it makes patients feel detached from their pain and environment.” While ketamine is still used in veterinary practice, the drug became a Schedule III drug in 1999, which formally acknowledged the abuse potential of the drug. (Schedule III drugs have a moderate potential for physical and psychological dependence).
Ketamine Addiction, Side Effects, and Overdose Risk
In addition to producing hallucinations, ketamine distorts perceptions of sight and sound. In some users, the drug makes users feel disconnected and not in control of their bodies or minds. Even when taken in low dosages, ketamine has a powerful desensitizing effect due to its nature as a tranquilizer.
Even though the drug esketamine being pushed as a potential treatment for depression is slightly different than ketamine, there is cause for concern regarding using a mind-altering, potentially hallucinogenic drug to help people who are already struggling with severe mental crises. Though the desensitizing effect of the drug may seem appealing to depression patients, little is known about the long-term effects of the drug’s influence on cognitive function, mental state, and emotional depth. Some reports even suggest ketamine can cause depression, questioning whether or not medical providers should be using the drug as a treatment for depression.
Ketamine also poses physical harm to users, including delirium, amnesia, impaired motor function, high blood pressure, and potentially fatal respiratory failure. Users may experience increased heart rate and blood pressure shortly after taking the drug. Ketamine can also make users unresponsive to external stimuli. The drug can cause nausea and, when taken to excess, overdose. When someone takes too much of the drug, it can lead to unconsciousness and dangerously slowed breathing, which can lead to death.
Because ketamine can cause desensitization and loss of motor function, the drug has sometimes been used to facilitate sexual assault. Ketamine is odorless and tasteless and has amnesia-inducing properties. When utilized by sexual predators, it may enable such individuals to commit sex crimes without their victims being able to remember details and thus implicate the culprit in such crimes.
Finally, ketamine is addictive, despite recent federal approval to use the drug in some therapeutic settings. Quoting DEA authors, “Ketamine has the potential for abuse, which may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.” Even under controlled settings in which the drug is being used for medicinal reasons, there is still a risk that patients may misuse the drug and become addicted to it.
There Are Evidence-Based Solutions for Health Crises Like Depression and Addiction
Ketamine was listed as a Schedule III drug in 1999. But in 2019, the Food and Drug Administration approved a ketamine nasal spray for the psychiatric treatment of depression. Since ketamine has come on the scene as a potential medicinal treatment, a clear alarm has been raised over whether or not misuse of the drug and addiction will increase. Sure enough, researchers at New York University found an increase in recreational use and overall availability of ketamine in recent years (particularly in 2019) coinciding with the drug’s FDA approval for depression treatment.
Thankfully, there are evidence-based solutions for depression. People who suffer from depression need not rely on potentially addictive, mind-altering drugs to seek relief from their harmful emotions.
And just as there are evidence-based treatments for depression, there are also evidence-based treatments for addiction. Qualified residential drug addiction treatment centers provide the environment, tools, resources, staff, counseling, and educational programs needed to help recovering addicts get to the bottom of what led them to misuse substances in the first place. Such programs also empower recovering addicts with coping strategies and life skills to tackle life without turning to drugs and alcohol when challenges and pitfalls arise.
If you know someone struggling with ketamine addiction, please make sure they get help.
- JAD. “Replication of distinct trajectories of antidepressant response to intravenous ketamine.” Journal of Affective Disorders, 2023. sciencedirect.com
- USNews. “Who Will Respond Best to Ketamine for Severe Depression? New Study Takes a Look.” U.S. News, 2022. usnews.com
- DEA. “Ketamine.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2020. dea.gov
- NDIC. “Ketamine Fast Facts.” National Drug Intelligence Center, 2003. justice.gov
- NIH. “Common Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs.” National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2015. nida.nih.gov
- NYU. “Recreational Ketamine Use Has Increased in Recent Years, But Remains Rare.” New York University, 2021. nyu.edu