Ketamine Depression
Fourteen-year-old Kwan Wang-yuen, one of the youngest students at the Christian Zheng Sheng College, a drug rehabilitation centre in a remote area on Hong Kong's Lantau island, poses during an interview June 17, 2009. Kwan encountered ketamine when he was 11. Reuters/Bobby Yip

The once-popular party drug ketamine is now considered by health experts as a leading treatment for severe depression and suicidal thinking. Ketamine, also known as Special K, is a very powerful anaesthetic that leaves a user lifeless and physically detached from his/her senses.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, ketamine is a staple anaesthetic in emergency rooms. It is popularly used for children who has broken a bone or dislocated their shoulders. The drug has been around since the 1960s.

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Ketamine is also an important component in veterinary medicine and burn centres. However, it is a notorious date-rape drug as it quickly numbs and renders one immobile.

Related: Kids on antidepressants: Suicide and aggression risks doubled; minimal use recommended

Studies over the past decade have proved ketamine’s efficacy in patients suffering from severe depression who find conventional antidepressants ineffective.

The momentum behind ketamine has reached the American Psychiatric Association (APA). According to members of a ketamine taskforce, APA is headed towards an endorsement of the drug for treatment-resistant depression.

Health experts are considering ketamine a significant advancement in mental health in more than half a century. Studies have proved that ketamine does not only produce a quick and vigorous antidepressant effect but also puts an end to suicidal thinking.

A Seattle business executive, Dennis Hartman, had decided to end his life after 25 years of depression therapy and 18 antidepressants and mood stabilisers couldn’t provide him any relief. However, he chose to give it a try one last time before ending his life.

In November 2012, he admitted himself to National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland. For 40 minutes an IV drip delivered ketamine to his body. After several hours, Hartman suddenly realised that all his suicidal thoughts are gone.

“It's really obvious if it's going to be effective. And the response rate is unbelievable. This drug is 75 percent effective, which means that three-quarters of my patients do well. Nothing in medicine has those kind of numbers,” said Enrique Abreu, an anaesthesiologist from Portland, Oregon, who began treating depressed patients with it in 2012.

However, more research is needed and it would be unwise to use drug ketamine widely without understanding its long-term risks and benefits.

“It's a medication that can have big changes in heart rate and blood pressure. There are so many unknowns, I'm not sure it should be used more widely until we understand its long-term benefits and risks,” said Gerard Sanacora, director of the Yale Depression Research Program.