Home ┬╗ The Real Deal on Drugs ┬╗ If ketamine is used to treat depression, how can it be that dangerous?

If ketamine is used to treat depression, how can it be that dangerous?

“As well as being used as an anaesthetic isn’t ketamine used to treat depression? If it’s used medically to help people it can’t be that dangerous.”

Many drugs that people choose to use recreationally (i.e., to have fun or alter their perception) also have legitimate medicinal uses. Cannabis continues to be an illegal drug in Australia but is now medicinally available on prescription and cocaine continues to be used by some medical professionals when performing eye surgery and ear, nose and throat procedures. Even a drug like heroin can have legitimate medical uses. In the UK, for example, it can be prescribed to patients for its pain-relieving properties.

In many cases, it’s not so much the drug that’s the problem, it’s the way it’s used that is of concern. Ketamine is a great example of a drug that can be so useful when used appropriately but, at the same time, cause potential harm when misused.

Ketamine was initially developed in the 1960s as an anaesthetic and is used in both human and veterinary surgery. In the 1970s it was believed the drug could potentially help people with alcohol problems and it’s also been discussed as a way of assisting those experiencing opioid withdrawal. Today, it’s being used to help treat a wide range of disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and, as you say, depression.

Ketamine has been found to be effective in helping some people with hard-to-treat depression. For those that do benefit from this treatment, some experience antidepressant effects lasting for days after just a single treatment. Like any treatment, however, it’s not suitable for everyone and not all people have a successful outcome. While some patients go from severely depressed to feeling completely well, ketamine can also have the opposite effect in some cases, so it’s vital that the treatment is carefully managed and monitored.

When ketamine is used to treat depression there are strict protocols in place. During a session the patient is guided through the process by trained personnel. Once completed, they must remain at the clinic for observation and aren’t permitted to leave until staff are satisfied they’re able to do so safely. Health professionals assess the patient’s mood regularly, and they’ll also undergo a range of health checks such as blood and urine tests.

Just because a drug can be used for therapeutic purposes it doesn’t mean that it is ‘safe’. There are risks associated with all drug use and when used by health professionals for medical reasons every attempt is made to reduce those risks, whether it be by controlling how much is taken and where it’s being used or by carefully monitoring the patient. When it’s taken for its hallucinogenic effects at a party or the like, there are none of these safeguards in place and, as a result, there’s a real risk that things can go wrong.

First published: April 2024

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