How Ketamine Offers Hope to Those Suffering From Serious Mental Illness

As the evidence for the positive impact of ketamine on depression and other mental illnesses grows, Naomi Arnold talks to Holly*, a Dunedin-based artist and anxiety sufferer whose prescription drug has made a huge difference in her life.

for more than 30 years, Holly’s chronic anxiety attacked her body. When the panic sets in, she gets very sweaty, her stomach churns, her jaw clenches, her shoulders crumple, and her heart pounds in her chest, so hard she can’t help it.

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His panic stations: You’re in danger, this is scary, he says. She would try to rationalize the symptoms and tell her brain it was just anxiety, but they didn’t stop. Along with her other diagnoses of depression and PTSD, his anxiety was so damaging that her life was stagnant. The unbearable symptoms had completely controlled the 44-year-old for most of her life.

That was until she joined a University of Otago study on the effects of ketamine on anxiety and started taking it twice a week. You found the effects immediate and almost magical; her brain opened up and she had the space to think and process what was happening inside her. It worked from her first low dose, separating her from the fire raging in her body. Two years into the study, she still takes prescription ketamine twice a week and is able to live a mostly normal life.

Image: Tina Tiller

Evidence has been accumulating for years about the positive impact of ketamine on depression and other mental illnesses. On Friday of last week, an Australian and New Zealand double-blind randomized controlled trial was published in British Journal of Psychiatryfinding that a low-cost version of ketamine was effective for treating severe, treatment-resistant depression compared to a placebo.

In their paper, the researchers found that more than one in five people achieved total remission of symptoms after a month of biweekly injections, while a third had an improvement in symptoms of at least 50%. In Australia, researchers are now applying to the government to fund the treatment because it is so potent and so cheap that generic ketamine can cost as little as A$5 a dose.

Holly was part of an earlier study conducted by one of the New Papers researchers, Paolo Colla, professor of psychological medicine at the University of Otago. In a media briefing last Friday, he said Douglas Pharmaceuticals in New Zealand is a company that is already quite advanced in developing a slow-release ketamine tablet that can be taken easily and safely at home with few side effects. , although it still has full trials and regulations to pass.

That could be where ketamine treatment goes, at least in one iteration, in the next few years.

He adds that there are huge treatment opportunities in New Zealand, with ketamine working beautifully for generalized anxiety, PTSD and specific phobias like spiders.

It could be an underlying brain process that makes one prone to depression and anxiety, and ketamines get rid of that process.

He says there is currently a private clinic in New Zealand providing the ketamine treatment, along with two universities. Proper training for doctors would be needed before it’s available in New Zealand, he says, which we currently lack.

There would be reluctance to jump in and give it a try.

But he sees a future where it’s more widely available in hospitals.

In New Zealand, we have a slightly less adventurous government in terms of facilitating access to psychedelics, he says. For it to become a treatment, the Misuse of Drugs Act would need to be rescinded, among other health care system and law changes. Its implementation would therefore require further training and more experienced doctors.

kEtamine is more popularly known as a recreational drug. The New Zealand Drug Foundations drug information website The level describes recreational effects ranging from pleasant (relaxation, euphoria, pain relief) to downright dangerous (convulsions, unconsciousness, respiratory problems, psychosis).

Large doses can lead to what’s known as a k-hole, where you can’t move or speak. Long-term use can cause severe bladder damage, liver failure, and kidney failure, as well as memory loss and other mental effects.

But under medical supervision, it helped Holly. Twice a week, she syringes the contents of a vial into a glass of orange juice and sips it slowly. He has to drink it for about two hours to avoid weird psychoactive stuff, which has included heart racing, paranoia, and an incident where he drank it way too fast and some Dungeons & Dragons characters in a podcast he was listening to started talking to about she.

It’s a very, very intense drug, he says. It’s very complete. [I was] taught how to deal with it in the right way during the test. I don’t think it should be available to anyone.

She has noticed its impact on a day-to-day level as well as in more stressful situations. Recently, she took a trip to Australia and had a nightmare in Melbourne that once allegedly caused her an enormous amount of distress; traveling is usually a big trigger for her anxiety and panic.

I took the wrong bag on the SkyBus, she says. But I had taken some ketamine the night before and was able to deal with the whole drama without having a total meltdown. My heart was pounding quite a bit, but it wasn’t overwhelming. And I could still think relatively clearly.

Ketamine gives me the ability to intellectualize what’s going on in my body and think about how to get out of it. Normally I can’t do this.

In fact, ketamine has given her such confidence that she is now studying at the University of Otago, after 20 years working in the disability sector. In her first semester, she went straight As. Being a mature student would have been too overwhelming before, she finds herself advising her classmates, 25 years her junior, on how to navigate the mental health system. She hopes to get a job in government or politics when she graduates.

Two cartoons taken from a comic that Holly made about her experience

What has also helped a lot is her regular appointment with a trauma psychologist.

I don’t think ketamine alone would be as helpful, she says. My psychologist gives me all kinds of mental tools to be able to cope with what’s going on. It’s amazing, it changed my life too. But I would get to a certain point and then the body would take over.

Holly had tried the usual round of treatments for her ailments before joining the practice. Getting her her trauma therapy required more than 10 years of spiraling progressively worse health until she found herself in such drastic circumstances that she was able to access therapy via ACC Sensitive Claims funding.

It was a really long journey and I basically tried to do everything by myself. And it didn’t work, she says. You have to keep fighting and it’s so hard and so exhausting.

Now, along with therapy, ketamine has resolved Holly’s symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD to such an extent that after decades of struggle she has finally achieved that simple but elusive goal in mental health care that Her treatments have lined up, are working quite well, and she feels mostly free to go about her life as normal. Whatever symptoms she has, she can handle them without meltdown.

Image: Getty Images

[Ketamine] it just gives me breath, she says. Stop that energy siphon that happens when you’re super anxious that sucks life and energy. It helps me feel calmer and happier and like I can function in society without fear.

Before he couldn’t go out much, there would have been too many people.

It helped me become a little braver, he says. I’ve also grown a lot mentally because I’ve had the physical space. I had that respite from anxiety symptoms. She helped the [therapy] work i’m doing in my head to keep going, so i can progress in life. Having so much more control over this is just life changing.

* The Spinoff hides Holly’s last name to protect her privacy.

This article interviews one person about their experience with a ketamine medical practice and does not purport to offer medical advice. Please consult your doctor about your specific health situation.

Ketamine is classified as a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Owning, buying, selling, manufacturing, importing, or giving to others is against the law. Information about ketamine and its effects can be found at The level.

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