How Doctors and Patients Alike Came Around to Ketamine

The psychoactive drug was once a last resort for people seeking relief from depression, but it’s becoming a more common therapy in Los Angeles and beyond

Dr. Helen Lavretsky had her first psychedelic trip in the middle of labor. She’d been given ketamine, an anesthetic first approved for surgeries on the Vietnam war front. “I had very vivid hallucinations,” she recalls with a laugh. “I remember my childbirth, but it took over my experience.” After coming down, Lavretsky, a geriatric psychiatrist at UCLA, had all but sworn off ketamine’s potential as a mental health agent.

Then, 35 years later, she joined a clinical trial monitoring the hallucinogen as a remedy for patients with treatment-resistant depression, many of whom see the infamous party drug as their last resort. The results were astonishing. “[Patients previously] tried psychotherapy, electroshock therapy, other brain stimulation—nothing worked,” she says. “Ketamine has had quite a remarkable effect.”

Lavretsky begrudgingly joined modern medicine in its embrace of psychotropics. What were once rebuked by physicians have swiftly become a new frontier for doctors desperate to find weapons against depression; the CDC reports that approximately 4.7 percent of adults in the U.S. experience regular feelings of depression. In this battle against a mental health epidemic, ketamine is leading the charge. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of ketamine clinics in the U.S. ballooned from 60 to 300, each treating a breadth of diagnoses, from depression to anxiety to alcoholism. The movement has even crossed the pond, with the first UK clinic opening this past March.

The main use of ketamine, typically administered through an IV drip, is for anesthesia, relegating any mental health interventions as an “off-label use” of the drug. Dr. Steve Mandel, founder of Ketamine Clinics Los Angeles, is one of the pioneers of ketamine therapy for depression and a proponent of careful regulation. His clinic purports to have an 83 percent success rate “for depression and mood disorder patients, with a majority seeing at least a 50 percent reduction of symptoms.” They’re currently onboarding a psychiatrist to join the staff.

Therapist Brooke Balliett, clinical director at the California Center for Psychedelic Therapy, also stresses the importance of having therapists present at every step of ketamine treatment. From the initial screening to the period following a ketamine injection—which Balliett assures is just as effective as the more popular IV drip—to chats between appointments, a therapist is there.

“Ketamine is a psychological intervention,” Balliett says. “Having someone who can help you process the shift in emotionality, perspective, and cognition is essential.” Balliett says the center regularly receives referrals from patients who weren’t satisfied with the care at clinics that don’t employ mental health personnel, although she concedes that there’s no research proving that therapy-assisted treatment is more effective, or vice versa.

Doug, a 58-year-old entrepreneur who asked for anonymity for medical privacy, tried therapy briefly before giving ketamine a shot. In 1993, he was diagnosed with dysthymia, a persistent depressive disorder, and turned to Prozac and psychiatry for relief. It didn’t work, and 20-odd-years of grin-and-bearing it passed before his wife recommended ketamine. Now, a year and a half into treatment at L.A.’s Ketamine Healing Clinic, he says he’s finally found relief.

“[After my first treatment,] the peace and the wellbeing that I felt almost brought me to tears,” Doug shared. “It’s spiritual…I have a new picture in my brain.”

While Doug isn’t receiving therapy along with the treatment, he says he can’t imagine it working better than it already has. His marriage has improved; he gets along with his employees; he’s actually able to enjoy life.

His answer to the miraculous change: “Just the ketamine.” How he plans to continue his treatment: “Just the ketamine.”

For help with mental health or substance abuse issues, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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