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Ketamine: Catalyst for Change in Mental Health Care - Insights from ASPK3 Conference and Real-World Applications

Just this past weekend, I attended the 2023 American Society of Ketamine Physicians, Psychotherapists, and Practitioners (ASPK3) conference in Austin, Texas, where I was impressed by Dr. Scott Shannon's presentation titled "Ketamine: A Catalyst for Paradigm Change in Mental Health Care." Dr. Shannon, a former President of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine, served as a site Principal Investigator and therapist for the Phase III trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). In his talk in Austin, and included in his published article, he shared alarming statistics:

  • There has been a 30% increase in suicide rates over the past two decades.
  • Despite the increased use of antidepressants, less than half of patients respond to their initial antidepressant, and between 30% to 40% develop treatment-resistant major depression.
  • Deaths of despair, involving drugs, alcohol, and suicide, doubled from 1999 to 2017.
  • Depression rates exceeded 20% before the COVID-19 pandemic and escalated to 30% within the first 12 months of it.

Today, I will share insights from both his captivating speech and published work and explore how ketamine acts as a catalyst for change, ushering in a new era of mental health care that embraces consciousness and effective therapeutic approaches. Join me as I share my firsthand, real-world experience treating patients in our ketamine infusion clinic in San Luis Obispo, California.

Shifting Paradigms: From Suppression to Exploration

Ketamine's role in mental health is transformative, marking a departure from traditional models that merely suppress symptoms. Instead, it facilitates an evocative model based on the belief that individuals hold the answers they seek within themselves, and they are the ultimate authority in their healing potential. Ketamine's remarkable efficacy in treating severe depression, even in medication and treatment-resistant cases, has caught the attention of psychiatric researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

Multiple Facets of Ketamine's Impact:

Ketamine's influence is multifaceted, affecting mental health care in several key ways:

  • Potency for Severe Depression: Ketamine outperforms conventional medications, offering marked acute antidepressant effects, making it a crucial player in psychiatric treatment. A 2022 systematic review and metanalysis shows that ketamine (pooled for racemic and esketamine) was associated with a treatment response of 65% and remission of approximately 40%.
  • Episodic Administration: Unlike daily antidepressant medications, ketamine's efficacy doesn't require daily doses. Ketamine offers flexibility, deviating from the traditional model of symptom suppression as is the case with conventional antidepressants, which are often described as having a numbing effect.
  • Default Mode Network Alteration: Ketamine, akin to classic psychedelics, decreases the activity of the default mode network, triggering profound insights and life-altering experiences. Classic psychedelics induce a download of unconscious material that can be very powerful, profound, yet sometimes quite overwhelming. Ketamine achieves a similar effect but in a gentler manner. Dr. Shannon highlights that ketamine diminishes cortical functioning, thereby mitigating the unpredictable surge of unconscious material into awareness. While it allows access to traumatic experiences, the impact of the newfound insights is generally more restrained and manageable.
  • Enhancing Psychotherapy: Ketamine expedites and enriches the psychotherapeutic process, providing practitioners with a potent tool for exploration. Psychotherapists frequently note that the progress achieved in post-infusion integration sessions often exceeds that of conventional therapy conducted over previous months or even years, in terms of cognitive flexibility and insight gained.

Ketamine's Clinical Advantages

Exploring ketamine in a clinical setting reveals its ease, safety, and unique attributes that set it apart from other psychedelic substances:

  • Anxiety Reduction: Ketamine acts as a mood booster with euphoric effects, alleviating anxiety and providing a more manageable entry point for those new to psychedelics. The anxiolytic effects are often experienced instantly after ketamine takes effect within minutes of starting an infusion. I can certainly attest to this, as most patients express a sense of calmness, peace, and stillness upon their return to a normal state of consciousness while in the clinic.
  • Brief Duration: With infusions lasting just forty minutes and ketamine's short half-life, the experience is a manageable journey. The total time in the clinic averages between 1 to 2 hours, allowing treatment to fit into busy schedules.
  • Safety Profile: With a track record spanning over fifty years in operating rooms, emergency departments, and pain centers, ketamine has proven to be exceptionally safe. Instances of side effects or adverse events occur rarely, especially when administered in a monitored clinic setting.
  • Ease of Use: Unlike MDMA and classic psychedelics, ketamine has very few contraindications or interactions with psychiatric medications. Protocols for MDMA and psilocybin, once legalized for therapeutic use, will likely include a contraindication for concurrent dosing with many, if not most, antidepressants. This means that most psychiatric patients must endure a medication taper and washout period spanning weeks to months. “This is not a trivial,” Dr. Shannon points out. Many patients have been on these medications for years, if not decades, and stopping an antidepressant may simply not be feasible, given the risk of rebound effects and neurotransmitter imbalances from years of neuromodulation. Ketamine does not affect levels of the chemicals commonly targeted by psychiatric medications (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine). As such, it does not require a taper of psychiatric medications or a washout period.
Medicine vial with fungus, comparing the two items on blue background
Thinking of taking psychedelics with antidepressants? Think again!

Ketamine: A Tool for Therapeutic Exploration

Beyond its clinical advantages, ketamine offers profound effects that enhance therapeutic exploration:

  • Powerful Alteration of Consciousness: Despite not being a "classic psychedelic," ketamine's dissociative nature disconnects cortical awareness, offering patients an awe-inspiring and unique experience. Examples from my clinic include patients who undergo such profound experiences that they trigger radical life changes, such as ending toxic relationships, embarking on new careers, and relocating to different parts of the country in response to an irresistible yearning. It never ceases to amaze me how strongly some clients are committed to making these major changes. A new sense of clarity and purpose is not a rare occurrence but, instead, a commonly shared experience.
  • Enhanced Neuroplasticity: Ketamine significantly boosts neuroplasticity, fostering a shift in thinking, mood, and motivation, offering practitioners and patients a fresh perspective. Ketamine introduces a new way of experiencing life and thoughts, especially regarding one’s life and the broader picture of existence. After a ketamine experience, the brain becomes more open to change. This heightened plasticity lasts most acutely for 24-48 hours, but with proper integration, the changes could endure a lifetime.
  • Unlocking and Processing Trauma: Ketamine offers therapists a means to access, and ultimately process, traumatic memories. The dissociative effect of ketamine reduces the intensity of emotions, including fear and anxiety, making it a valuable tool for psychotherapy. It provides a way to revisit triggering negative experiences in a manner that helps limit the excessive emotional pain linked to trauma and interpersonal conflict. Once in an induced dissociated state, someone with a history of trauma can access distressing emotions without experiencing overwhelming terror or panic, and learn to reframe their past experiences through a different lens of perspective and oftentimes with compassion.
  • More Gamma Wave: Tibetan Monk Superpowers: Gamma brain waves, as measured in electroencephalographic (EEG) studies, may indicate a state of peak concentration like intensely focusing your brain on the task at hand or present moment. When in this heightened state of consciousness, it can aid in information processing and problem-solving. Research with Tibetan monks demonstrated that meditative practice induce heightened gamma power. Gamma power refers to the strength or intensity of neural oscillations in the gamma frequency range, which is typically defined as oscillations in the range of 40 to 100 Hertz (Hz) in the brain's electrical activity. Ketamine is among the few documented agents that elevate gamma power. While meditation is undoubtedly beneficial, mastering it often requires many hours, perhaps years of practice—an arduous task for most individuals. Can ketamine serve as a shortcut to achieve that therapeutic meditative state? Ask those who have undergone ketamine therapy, and you'll likely receive an unequivocal yes.
A chart displaying the five brain waves frequencies and a description of each wave
Brain waves from highest frequency (Gamma) to lowest (Delta).

Challenges and Considerations

Dr. Shannon acknowledges challenges, including the risk of dependence and addictive behaviors. Misuse and overprescribing, especially in the context of daily use, can hinder progress toward a new paradigm in mental health care. I couldn’t agree more with this. Those who claim that ketamine is not potentially addictive may not have witnessed firsthand patients who receive excessive amounts of oral ketamine lozenges at their doorstep with little or no guidance and oversight on use. This practice puts patients at risk of overuse and abuse, resembling the treatment of acute symptoms with anxiolytics and antidepressants, which, in my opinion, is not the intended use of ketamine. Instead, the proper use of ketamine calls for more attention to intention-setting, goal-directed therapy, and mindful use. It’s not about taking a pill every day, but rather using ketamine sparingly and with ample time between dosing sessions for the integration of insights gained from experiences. This approach allows for changes in behavior, perception of oneself, and the development of action plans, with the goal of decreasing the frequency of use and eventual need.

A Gateway to the Future of Mental Health Care

As we navigate the complexities of mental health care, ketamine has emerged as a gateway medicine, offering immediate access to transformative experiences. While awaiting the legalization and approval of other psychedelic agents like MDMA and psilocybin, ketamine stands as a legal and accessible option for both patients and practitioners.

In conclusion, ketamine's ability to open the psyche, transform mental health care, and address the current crisis directly positions it as a catalyst for paradigm change in the realm of mental health. The integration of ketamine into therapeutic practices not only offers relief for those suffering but also rejuvenates the passion of mental health professionals, fostering a genuine respect for consciousness and the inner realms of the psyche. With ketamine leading the way, we step into an era that embraces exploration, healing, and a holistic understanding of mental well-being.

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