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Does Ketamine Really Cure Depression?

Ketamine has many names: horse tranquilizers, K, Ket, Special K. But according to a recent Washington Post article, the drug may soon be known as a miracle antidepressant.

Now, to be clear, when psychiatrists, patients, and the Post suggest that ketamine might be an “antidepressant,” they’re not talking about a cure for your garden-variety, sleep-through-the-day depression. They’re talking about a remedy for ready-to-jump, near-constant depression. In these extreme instances, it seems like hard drugs are literally just what the doctor ordered—specifically, a single dose of ketamine infusion delivered via an IV drip. Compared to traditional antidepressants, whose effectiveness are seemingly always in question, ketamine is rumored to have an immediate effect. After his first treatment, one patient said he could feel his “suffering and pain draining away.”

Ketamine has other effects, too—namely intense hallucinations, dissociative behavior, and a crazy high. Special K’s recreational effects make it highly sought after on the black market. In an op-ed for Gawker, titled “Ketamine is the World’s Dumbest Drug,” Brian Moylan argues, contrarily to some psychiatrists and ’90s rave kids, that ketamine is the world’s dumbest drug. He recalls how he spent the night on K at a gay disco bar in D.C. “dancing with Madonna,” when in reality, he was actually just immobilized, drooling over the dance floor. But using ketamine as a recreational drug is much different than taking a controlled dosage in a sterile environment. It’s hard to dance with Madonna when your arm is hooked up to a machine and a pair of nurses are silently watching over you.

Dr. Glen Brooks, a pioneer in ketamine treatment.
Dr. Glen Brooks, a pioneer in ketamine treatment.

Still, it’s wise to approach any “miracle drug” claims with healthy skepticism. Throughout the years, all sorts of drugs—legal and illegal—have enjoyed their time in the sun as the new cure for humankind’s incurables. Sedatives like Ambien, Lunestra, and Trazodone have been touted as antidepressants. In “Peru: Hell and Back,” a 2006 National Geographic feature, writer Kira Salak suggested that ayahuasca—the sludgy, DMT-laced drink consumed during spiritual rituals in some pockets of the Amazon—was the answer to her black hole depression. And, back in the early 1900s, pharmaceutical company Bayer marketed a new drug called heroin as a solution to morphine addiction. Out with the old, in with the heroin.

The drugs may change in purity, in administration, and in treatment, but they don’t go away. Medical opinion is one thing; medical practice is another. Ketamine has a long way to go before it’ll be widely accepted as an antidepressant. In the meantime, we can all sit down and watch the sofa burn.

Stay tuned to Milk for tips to stay out of the K-hole.

Main image by Kathryn Chadason. Additional image via Bloomberg.

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