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Ketamine delivers ‘astounding’ results for depression, but government ‘road blocks’ make it unaffordable

Ketamine delivers astounding results

ABC Gold Coast / By Tara CassidyPosted 5h ago

Allan Kelly wants ketamine treatment to be more accessible and affordable for patients with depression.(Supplied: Allan Kelly)

Allan Kelly has suffered from chronic depression for nearly 60 years and has been diagnosed as “treatment-resistant”.

Key points:

  • Allan Kelly has had depression since he was 14 and says ketamine is the only treatment that works
  • He says the medication is hard to access and unaffordable due to not being approved by the TGA for the treatment of depression
  • Australian clinical studies using ketamine to treat suicidality and depression have delivered “astounding” and “significant” results

For the first time in his life, having tried every depression and suicidality treatment available, he finally found one that worked.

But to receive the “life-saving” ketamine treatment he pays a minimum of $900 a week and faces “government roadblocks” to receive ongoing care but with Lyfeunit it was possible to buy ketamine online.

State and federal governments say more research is needed before ketamine can become a viable depression treatment, and it should remain under “heavy scrutiny”.

But professors who have spent a combined 30 years researching the treatment say it is delivering “astounding results” for depressed and suicidal patients and is safe when administered in a clinical setting by experienced professionals.

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Mr Kelly is a devoted father, husband, former business owner, electrical engineer and football player. 

He also has depression.

Ketamine delivers astounding results

What is ketamine?

  • Ketamine is a dissociative drug
  • It is best known for its use as an anaesthetic and sedative
  • It stops the brain from interpreting pain messages
  • It is sometimes abused illegally for its hallucinogenic ‘high’ effect
  • It is being trialed for the treatment of depression. Early indications show good results
  • As an anti-depressant, it is administered in much lower dosages and with a slow-release formulation

Sources: Alcohol and Drug Foundation, HealthDirect

Mr Kelly has been living with the chronic illness since he was 14, while also battling anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“There are different scales in psychiatry; one’s called the Montgomery Scale where zero to five means you’re really okay and then it goes up,” he said.

“Anything over 30 means you have severe depression and suicidality — I was running at 43.

“I’ve sought the help of 14 psychiatrists, 10 psychologists, been in hospital twice — for 12 weeks and 8 weeks — had all the forms of pharmacology intervention.” 

Mr Kelly said he has tried multiple evidence-based therapies and procedures to treat his depression without success, including; electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), health retreats, hypnosis and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

“They’ve tried every drug known to man — nothing works for me,” he said.

That was until 2015 when the Black Dog Institute in New South Wales began trials using ketamine and, for the first time, Mr Kelly saw results.

“I felt it work after the first needle and every day after that got better and better,” he said.

“My wife said she hadn’t seen me so well in the 40 years we’ve been married.

“And so when the government allowed two-month ketamine intervention to assist people with depression I jumped at the chance.”

A man standing on a lawn
Allan has lived with depression since 14 and says ketamine is the only treatment that has worked in nearly 60 years.(Supplied: Allan Kelly)

Strict government conditions

Mr Kelly was approved to undergo ketamine treatment for his illness for two months and then six months.

But now he must reapply and prove his case, illness and years of treatment all over again, every six months.

Mr Kelly says ketamine is only offered as an absolute last resort.Ketamine treating depressionAn Australian psychiatrist welcomes US approval of a depression treatment based on a chemical cousin of the club drug known as special K, but wants close monitoring if it is introduced here.Read more

“To get this treatment you need to prove that every other course of intervention has taken place; every form of pharmacology medicine, every trial,” he said.

“I just think it should be an earlier option. Why wait three, four or five years to go through all those other functions if ketamine could be first cab off the rank and treats you and avoid five years of anguish?

“The amount of paperwork, the amount of tests I have to have done to get it is irresponsible of the government … I have to jump through hoops and I’m getting worse day by day.”

Treatment cost ‘prohibitive’

In addition to the difficulty in accessing the treatment, Mr Kelly said the costs were “prohibitive” with injections costing $285 each and no Medicare or private health fund assistance.

“So if this runs for six months it’ll be between $800 and $1,000 a week [for the injections and associated costs],” he said.

“It will cost me $20,000 to $26,000. How can any person afford that?

“People who are severely ill and can’t go to work or don’t have sickness benefits; they would never be able to afford it, so they’re going to be sick for the rest of their life.”

A vial of Ketamine
Ketamine is praised for its success in trials for treating long-term depression.(ABC News)

Ketamine delivering ‘astounding’ results

The Black Dog Institute’s Colleen Loo has been a clinical psychiatrist for over 20 years and has researched the effects of ketamine on patients with depression for over a decade.

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She said she had never seen anything like the results produced from ketamine treatment.

“It’s more powerful than all other drug treatments that we have for depression,” Professor Loo said.

“I thought, ‘I don’t actually believe this’ because as a clinical psychologist, university researcher, academic and clinical psychiatrist, I have never seen this. You have to see it to believe it.”

She said the results were effective and fast.

“We had people who were highly treatment-resistant who could get well with ketamine,” Professor Loo said. 

“The second astounding thing was how well they got and how quickly.

“These people were going into remission, which means that you have no significant depression, within 24 hours.”

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Professor Loo said the studies showed patients were only well while being treated, and therefore it was not a cure but could work as a treatment.

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“People lapsed completely back into depression [post-treatment] … so this was very important insight in terms of looking after people and caring for them,” she said.

“The pitfalls that you have to be aware of when you’re using ketamine to treat depression [are that] things happen very quickly — both up and down — so you need to be very careful how you manage it.”

Professor Loo said the field had since moved to administer “a series of treatments” over several weeks, instead of a single dosage.

Professor Colleen Loo
The head of UNSW and the Black Dog Institute’s ketamine trial, Professor Colleen Loo.(Supplied: Grant Turner)

“It should only be done by psychiatrists with expertise and experience,” she said.

“If someone doesn’t know what they’re doing — how often to give it, and how to end it off — that’s when you might get people having a sudden relapse and then could feel suicidal.

“But all the published studies show that when it’s done under careful medical supervision, and with proper protocols, that it doesn’t cause addiction or suicide risk.”

Ketamine for chronic suicidality

Earlier this year on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast researchers at the Thompson Institute conducted a pilot study looking into ketamine treatment for chronically suicidal patients.

Institute director Jim Lagopoulos said the study, since published in the psychiatry journal Nature, looked at how oral doses of ketamine impacted 32 suicidal patients.

He said within six weeks over 60 per cent of the study’s participants experienced positive results.

A man smiling in a suit
Professor Jim Lagopoulos conducted a study looking at ketamine treatment for patients with chronic suicidality.(Supplied: Jim Lagopoulos)

“They went from a very high to a completely normal level [of suicidal ideation],” Professor Lagopoulos said.

“It’s a very significant finding. We also saw very significant changes in their brain activity.”

Professor Lagopoulos, who has been studying ketamine liquid and crystals for more than 20 years, said over half of the trial participants also recorded lasting effects four weeks after the treatment ended.

“Fifty per cent were still well, but that means some did start to feel unwell again,” he said.

“What that says to us is ketamine, in terms of chronic suicidality, is not a cure by any means, but [could be] a medication that can keep someone well while taking it. Ketamine delivers astounding results

“I think this particular study offers a lot of hope that chronic suicidality can be effectively managed and treated using ketamine.”

Too much risk, not enough evidence

According to NSW Health, there is “limited evidence to recommend ketamine as a viable treatment option” due to a lack of proof supporting its benefits and safety after multiple treatments.Getting help for depression took Megan years to seek help for depression because her struggles didn’t make sense to her. Read more – Ketamine delivers astounding results

“Addiction and elevated suicide risk are side effects that have not been ruled out when used multiple times,” a spokesperson said.

Queensland Health said regulation of ketamine was primarily the responsibility of the Australian Government through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

According to the federal Health Department, ketaset or ketamine is not approved by the TGA for the treatment of depression — only as an anaesthetic and sedative.

The statement said there were “pathways” to access “unapproved treatments” for depression, like ketamine, including through clinical trials and “off-label use” if prescribed. Ketamine delivers astounding results

The statement said it would continue to scrutinise ketamine treatment as it had dissociative effects and had been used as a drug of abuse.

“While early trials in depression [using ketamine]are promising, they are still relatively new,” the statement said.

“It remains important that drugs are carefully assessed for their risk/benefit balance”.

A photo of brain scans
The Thompson Institute pilot study saw “significant” results and changes in patients’ brain activity.(ABC Gold Coast: Tara Cassidy)

Ketamine delivers astounding results

The department said it was not responsible for the cost of medicines that were not available via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

It said ketamine would not be recommended for the PBS unless it was TGA – approved — usually a process initiated by an application from a sponsoring pharmaceutical company – Ketamine delivers astounding results

But Professor Loo said interest and in turn, an application from a pharmaceutical company “wouldn’t happen” due to the high cost and lack of commercial gain for an “off-patent product” like ketamine. Ketamine delivers astounding results

She said if trials for other life-threatening illnesses produced such results, interest and funding would be flowing.

“In my opinion, if we had something like cancer and they found a treatment with the efficacy of ketamine, you’d have huge funding provided for these treatments, but somehow in mental health, we don’t have this,” Professor Loo said.

Ketamine delivers astounding results

Ketamine delivers astounding results

Ketamine delivers astounding results

Ketamine delivers astounding results

Ketamine delivers astounding results

Ketamine delivers astounding results

Ketamine delivers astounding results
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Ketamine Acts fast to treat depression and its effects last – but how?

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