‘I can stop and breathe’: the people taking ketamine for depression
It has a reputation as a party drug, but some patients say it has transformed their lives after no other treatments helped.
When depression takes hold of Helen it feels like she is drowning in a pool of water, unable to swim up to the world above. The 36-year-old former nurse has had mental health problems most of her life. No drugs, hospital stays or therapies have been able to help.
Then one day, during yet another spell in hospital, her consultant told her about a psychiatrist treating patients with ketamine. The psychiatrist in question visited her to discuss using the drug. He warned there were no guarantees, but it had helped some patients.
Since then Helen’s life has transformed. Sitting on a bench in the grounds of the hospital where her treatment began a year and a half ago, she lists everything she can do now that she could not before: take her kids to school, give them hugs, go on coffee dates.
“I am managing my thoughts and that is what ketamine helps to do. It slows down my thought process so instead of being completely overwhelmed by all these immense negative thoughts and feelings … I can think, stop and breathe,” she says, nervously pulling her sleeves over her hands as she talks.
She adds: “It’s still really hard but now there is a tiny fraction of a second where my thoughts are slow enough to think: ‘I can deal with this. I cannot give up.’”
Helen is not the only person changed by ketamine. For Keith, a 64-year-old former businessman, who is also at the hospital, it has helped where other drugs have failed. He has been on it for three years to treat bipolar disorder. He explains that he has taken an infusion of the drug that morning, which is why he is so chatty.
“I take an infusion intravenously in hospital once every six weeks and then I have 10ml which I take orally twice a week at home. I go out afterwards and do things like gardening. When I am depressed I don’t want to do anything. All I do is sit on the sofa and watch TV shows like Bargain Hunt,” he says.
Keith credits ketamine with helping soften his depression, such that he now has good days as well as bad ones. “My wife gets her husband back for those few days when I am normal – well, whatever normal is,” he says.
There is increasing evidence that ketamine, often thought of as a party drug of abuse, is an effective and powerful antidepressant. Helen and Keith are patients at Warneford NHS hospital in Oxford where Dr Rupert McShane leads the UK’s only ketamine treatment centre. It caters for people for whom other antidepressants have not worked. McShane is not the only doctor who has been experimenting with the drug – other UK hospitals have given it to patients as part of clinical treatments.