When I was hospitalized for anxiety and depression at the age of 20, one of the patients at the facility, a young mother, began talking to me while waiting for her ECT or electroconvulsive therapy, commonly known as shock therapy.
How can a psychedelic party drug be a useful tool in a psychiatrist’s pharmacological arsenal? It’s a joke? For many, absolutely not.
“ECT?” I burst out, thinking of sparks flying through the air. “Do they still do it?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “It really helps. It’s the only thing that helps.”
With the addition of anesthesia and muscle relaxants, ECT can help people suffering from treatment-resistant depression. Actor and mental health advocate Carrie Fisher spoke positively about her shock treatments. However, due to the negative representations of ECT on popular culture, many people are still unaware of the usefulness of therapy.
Ketamine therapy has a similar stigma. When most people think of ketamine, imagine the popular party drug in the 90s and early 00s. How can a psychedelic party drug be a useful tool in a psychiatrist’s pharmacological arsenal? It’s a joke?
For many, absolutely not. When administered under the care of a medical professional, it can be a life-saving drug.
With treatment-resistant mental health disorders, particularly depression, ketamine therapy may work when other therapies have failed. According to Dr. Robert C. Meisner, who writes in the blog Harvard Health, “if a person responds to ketamine, it can quickly reduce suicide (life-threatening thoughts and actions) and relieve other severe symptoms of depression.”
We hope that the stigma against ketamine will decrease as people become more aware of its possibilities and rigorous scientific research on its potential. A new documentary on Friday should be a significant boost to his profile. In “Reborn,” NBA champion Lamar Odom speaks candidly about how he believes the drug saved his life.
Ketamine is no miracle drug. As with any medication, there are drawbacks. Side effects include sensations of dissociation, mild hallucinations, increased blood pressure, respiratory depression, and, most worryingly, the potential for abuse by people with a history of addiction.
“Because of its addictive properties, I think of it as a last resort,” said Sarah Gundle, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and works with patients on ketamine therapy. “And I also think it should be used in a concerted way with therapeutic support, not alone.”
Given these serious precautions, it is essential that the medication be taken only in coordination with a physician. Therapeutic ketamine is administered in infused doses in a controlled environment under the care of a mental health professional and clinics across the country offer this service, some more responsibly than others. There is also a nasal spray approved by the Food and Drug Administration called Spravato (esketamine) that a doctor may prescribe.
Unfortunately, Odom’s documentary does not emphasize the importance of conversational therapy in conjunction with medication. But he does speak frankly about the traumas of his life and the bottom line before starting ketamine therapy through the intervention of Mike Zapolin, a slightly rogue businessman who considers himself an advocate of psychedelic medicine and is the director of the movie.
On October 13, 2015, Odom was found unconscious at the Love Ranch brothel in Crystal, Nevada, after suffering from kidney failure and several heart attacks and strokes after a holiday weekend. He was given life support and was found to have used various types of drugs. Against the odds, Odom, who had been battling drug abuse for years, recovered and continued to be a vocal advocate of ketamine for helping change his life.
In the documentary, Odom is filmed receiving treatment in ketamine clinics and is careful to show what the science-based experience is like. Electrocardiograms are connected and doctors monitor patients. The clinics look like medical spas, not drug dens or tents in Burning Man.
At the end of the documentary, Odom says he wants to be the “Malcolm X of mental health,” a vocal activist willing to inspire change. After all, silence allows stigma to grow and getting a famous basketball player to talk about his mental health journey can help inspire people, particularly men, to get there.
“For many men, especially in the African American community, we are taught that talking about mental health or asking for help is a sign of weakness,” Odom told me in an interview before the documentary was released. “We need to remove the stigma around alternative treatments like ketamine and the shame of seeking help.”
Even if ketamine therapy sounds unconventional and is only suitable for a small group of people, it allows people who have suffered for years without hope to finally find relief. Jessica Reidy, a writer working on a book about her experience with ketamine, explained that she began therapy after being overwhelmed by depression, anxiety and the complex post-traumatic stress disorder, aggravated by death of his mother.
“I was so depressed and anxious that I couldn’t move my body, sometimes for hours,” Reidy said. Ketamine therapy allowed her access to her pain and helped her process an intact trauma. “Ketamine definitely helped me get to this place of acceptance so I could take better care of myself.”
Gundle thinks the controversy surrounding ketamine comes from its history as a club drug, as well as its potential addiction. It is also hampered by the fact that scientists are still not entirely sure how it works. Ketamine is likely to work in several ways simultaneously and more research is being done.
But Gundle also sees the stigma of ketamine as similar to the general stigma surrounding mental health: “The real barrier for people struggling for treatment and help is shame. The more treatment options, the better. , as depression is a growing epidemic, all forms of mental health treatment need to be destigmatized to combat this epidemic. “