Local medical professionals say psychedelic abused as a party drug has made life-changing improvements for patients.
A nurse at Dr. Ghorieshi’s office adds the dose of ketamine to an IV bag as Rachel Morgan, left, receives her ketamine treatment at the Palo Alto office on July 18, 2019. Patients are given the drug intravenously, and the process takes about 40 minutes. Afterwards patients are encouraged to relax into the experience and the effects of the drug which patients have described as disassociating from the room and one’s body.
The 33 year old has struggled to beat back severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for much of her life. She’s tried more than 30 psychiatric medications, none of which helped. Her inner pain reached a level so unbearable that she retreated from the world. She stayed in bed. She stopped doing the dishes and taking out the trash, which piled up in her San Francisco apartment. She stopped socializing. She lost the will to live.
“I had gotten to a point where I disappeared, mentally and physically,” Morgan said. “My psychiatrist kind of put his hands up in the air and said, ‘There’s nothing else I can do for you.'”
But he did suggest something different she could try, albeit not through him: ketamine. The only legally available psychedelic in the U.S., the drug is widely used as an anesthetic in hospitals and medical settings. But it has been found to give people with severe mood disorders, including treatment-resistant depression and suicidal ideation, almost unbelievably fast-acting relief from their symptoms — some with a single dose, though more commonly it takes several treatments.
Morgan received her first ketamine infusion in a Palo Alto psychiatry clinic in June. By her second treatment, she took out the trash for the first time in months. After several infusions, friends told her she was talking more than she had in a year.
For the first time in her life, “I felt like there is a future for me,” Morgan said. “It’s left me a different person than I was a year ago.”
Ketamine is starting to shed its reputation as a psychedelic club drug and experimental mental health treatment as more patients like Morgan see results and more research is conducted on the drug’s impact on the brain. A watershed moment came in March when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Spravato, or esketamine, a ketamine nasal spray for adults with treatment-resistant major depression. One short-term clinical trial showed the spray had a statistically significant effect on depression compared to a placebo, and patients saw some effect within two days, according to the FDA.
A handful of local private psychiatry clinics have in recent years started offering ketamine. They are working at the forefront of a promising new treatment in psychiatry, a field that has seen little medication innovation for decades.
Many of the psychiatrists who run these clinics said they were initially skeptical of the drug’s potential, with little still known about how exactly ketamine works as an antidepressant and its long-term effects, but became believers when they saw life-changing improvements in patients for whom nothing else had worked.
Exploring Ketamine’s potential
Ketamine was developed in 1962 as a fast-acting anesthetic and continues to be widely used as such today, particularly for surgery and pain relief, including with children and in veterinary medicine. The drug is a schedule III controlled substance, meaning its medical use is accepted and it has moderate to low potential for abuse. The World Health Organization has included ketamine on its list of essential medicines since 1985 and calls it “possibly the most widely used anesthetic in the world.” As an anesthetic, it is incredibly safe (it does not depress breathing or blood pressure) and is easy to administer, according to the World Health Organization.
In higher doses, ketamine produces a “dissociative” state that can include hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. The drug’s conscious-altering potential led to its recreational use in the psychedelic era of the 1960s and 1970s.
Reports of ketamine use to treat psychological or psychiatric disorders first emerged in the 1970s, including in Argentina, Mexico and Russia, according to a study co-authored by Jennifer Dore, who offers ketamine at her private Helios Psychiatry practice in Woodside.
In 2000, a group of Yale University researchers published a seminal but small-scale study that found seven patients with major depression who received ketamine showed significant improvement in their symptoms within 72 hours, suggesting the drug could be used as an antidepressant.
Six years later, a National Institute of Mental Health study showed that ketamine reduced depression symptoms more quickly than a placebo.
Dore, who trained as a resident at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry, became curious about ketamine several years ago while treating patients with severe PTSD and treatment-resistant depression. They simply weren’t getting better.
Dore dug into the available research on the drug’s antidepressant effects, which suggested that ketamine inhibits the action of the brain’s NMDA receptors and triggers glutamate production, which causes the brain to form new neural connections. She reached out to Phil Wolfson, director of the Center for Transformational Psychotherapy in San Anselmo, who pioneered ketamine-assisted psychotherapy, in which ketamine is administered while simultaneously patients receive therapy. She was compelled by taking this approach rather than the more medical model of providing the drug in isolation.
The results with her early patients in 2016 were like nothing she had ever seen.
“They had immediate relief,” she said.
In March, Dore published a five-year study with two other psychiatry practices that found patients who received ketamine saw clinically significant improvements in depression and anxiety, particularly so for people who came in with more severe symptoms like suicidality and a history of psychiatric hospitalization. At their clinics, they saw the drug help people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse, psychological reactions to physical illness and even relationship issues and social anxiety.
“Ketamine promotes a time-out from (the) ordinary, usual mind, relief from negativity, and an openness to the expansiveness of mind with access to self in the larger sense,” Dore’s study states. “These effects enhance a patient’s ability to engage in meaningful psychotherapy during and after administration.”
Dore is a staunch champion of combining ketamine with psychotherapy, which she believes is necessary to harness the full potential of the drug. She doesn’t see ketamine as a magic bullet, but rather one tool she can use in concert with others — talk therapy, medication, nutrition — to treat people in serious psychological pain.
Before patients start ketamine, Dore carefully evaluates them to determine if it’s an appropriate next step in their treatment, as recommended by the American Psychiatric Association, including through therapy sessions, psychological tests and a review of their medical history. If they choose to proceed, Dore requires patients to sign a lengthy consent form that explains how ketamine works and its potential benefits and risks.
During a patient’s initial treatment, Dore monitors their physical and emotional responses, including blood pressure and heart rate, to decide on an appropriate dose going forward. The highest doses can produce the dissociative state, or the dream-like sensation of disconnecting from reality, Dore said. (Some people believe they have died and are in a new reality, she said. One patient described it as being in a lucid dream.) At lower doses, it can feel more like having a glass of wine, she said. The peak effects last about 15 to 30 minutes, according to Dore.
Patients can take the ketamine via a small lozenge that dissolves under their tongues, intravenously or an intra-muscular injection.
They receive the ketamine in a large second-floor space at Dore’s practice. It resembles a homey living room more than a psychiatric setting — a reflection of the importance of creating “set and setting” for a psychedelic experience, including a comforting physical environment. A large, soft corner couch is strewn with pillows, including one that says “anger” and another, “love.” During treatments, Dore pulls down the blinds on the windows, adjusts the temperature and offers patients weighted blankets, eyeshades and quiet music. The sessions last two to three hours.
Gaining a new perspective on Ketamine
Andy Mathis was at the end of his mental rope when he found Dore. A father, husband and successful tech industry executive, he had quietly suffered from self-doubt and insomnia since he was a young child. By the time he reached his mid-40s, it had escalated to depression. He felt his well-being and very brain chemistry was at risk.
A friend of a friend referred him to Dore, who prescribed him antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications that finally helped him sleep. But she suspected there was more to understand about the root causes of his symptoms, he said, and suggested ketamine as a means for exploring that.
A former professional tennis player, Mathis said he had never taken any drugs before. He did his own research on ketamine and thought it sounded “groundbreaking.” He was more curious than fearful about embarking on a psychedelic experience.
He received his first infusion two and a half years ago and continues to get ketamine every four to eight weeks today.
“It was indeed transformational,” Mathis said. “Nothing less than transformational.”
Mathis described the experience as taking him out of his own ego, a “tilt(ing) of the prism on how I see things.”
“It allowed me to have a detached, philosophical view on all things — me, my place in the world, my relationships,” he said.
This helps him make sense of his emotions “in a way that can be extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible to do when I am inside of myself,” referring to his default, day-to-day mental state.
Over the course of the infusions, Mathis started feeling more comfortable in his own skin, which he said improved his relationships and even his work performance. He realized he has a love for music and at age 47, started to learn how to play the saxophone. He came to a better understanding of his relationship to food and how he had used it as a coping mechanism.
Combining the ketamine-induced realizations with therapy was crucial, Mathis said.
“It was the post-experience discussions that we would have that would also unravel and unwind some of the unhealthy habits,” he said. “I’m 47 now, almost 48. I am healthier now than I was probably, maybe, ever.”
Dore likened ketamine’s power as a catalyst for psychological change to “a year of psychotherapy in three hours.”
Unlike antidepressants, patients don’t have to take ketamine every day and do not experience significant side effects; they can become nauseous or slur their words during the treatment, psychiatrists said. They require patients to have someone to drive them home after the treatment.
Mathis, for his part, did not experience any negative side effects. A patient at another local psychiatry clinic, Lisa Ward, however, said her mind feels “foggy” if she has two infusions in a single week. According to the FDA, the most common side effects experienced by patients treated with Spravato, the esketamine nasal spray, in clinical trials including disassociation, dizziness, nausea, lethargy and increased blood pressure.
“It would be inhumane,” Dore said, to not offer ketamine to people in intractable mental anguish. “We need things that are transformative, that aren’t putting a Band-Aid on a problem.”