Ketamine, 'Special K,' is a party drug now being used to treat depression, PTSD, and more

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Military veteran Kevin Dunaway served in the Army for 26 years, and today he works as a high school honors chemistry teacher.

He's proud of his role as a former soldier, father, and teacher, but admits he struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I have been battling depression all my life," Dunaway said. "As soldiers, we're trained to suppress that because we have other troops that we have to take care of."

Dunaway said his mental health was relatively well-managed with traditional antidepressant medications, including Wellbutrin and Cymbalta. But when a friend mentioned he try ketamine infusion therapy as a powerful, less-conventional treatment, Dunaway was curious.

"Along with my traditional medication, (ketamine) has produced fantastic results. I mean, fantastic," Dunaway said of ketamine infusion therapy. "I certainly encourage folks to research the benefits like I did, and with especially the PTSD, and the severe depression treatment. Yes, ketamine is not a miracle drug, I should say, but it does pretty darn good."

Ketamine is an anesthetic, street drug, and more recently an emerging treatment for a variety of psychological conditions, including depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.

Ketamine's shifting identity stems from its properties as a dissociative anesthetic, meaning it reduces pain but can cause sensory disruptions, including hallucinations.

First used to treat wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War in the 1970s, ketamine found its way into clubs as a recreational drug and was nicknamed Special K.

The recreational "high" comes with health risks. When abused in combination with other substances like alcohol, ketamine can result in respiratory failure and even death.

Dunaway's physician is Dr. Mark Armitage of Pelican Family Medicine and Kalypso Wellness Center. Since introducing ketamine infusion therapy in July, Armitage said he has given the treatment to about 100 patients.

"In our practice, we seem to have done a lot of severe depression and post-traumatic stress," Armitage said. "And these seem to benefit greatly from the ketamine, in some cases just absolutely, astronomically wonderful."

Conditions that Armitage said he has treated with ketamine infusion therapy include chronic migraine headaches, severe depression, PTSD, chronic pain, phantom limb injury, severe anxiety, and claustrophobia.

The ketamine infusion is delivered over the course of an hour in a dimly-lit room while the patient rests quietly in a comfortable chair.

For some patients, Armitage said a single session is enough to last for years.

"However, most people do require multiple treatments, and usually it's some sort of frequency, like monthly," Armitage said.

In April 2017, medical experts who were part of an American Psychiatric Association task force released a statement to set the record straight on the current status of ketamine infusion therapy for treating psychological mood disorders like depression.

This consensus statement from the American Psychiatric Association provides a general overview of the data on the use of ketamine hydrochloride for the treatment of mood disorders and highlights the limitations of the existing knowledge.

"The rapid onset of robust, transient antidepressant effects associated with ketamine infusions has generated much excitement and hope," the authors wrote. "However, it is necessary to recognize the major gaps that remain in our knowledge about the longer-term efficacy and safety of ketamine infusions."

An attached commentary sums up how many doctors and researchers feel about ketamine: "a time for optimism and caution."

According to the commentary's cited research, the benefits of one ketamine treatment kick in within hours, but only last about a week. Little is known about the long-term effects.

A worldwide search of clinical trials involving ketamine and mood disorders reveals more than 90 clinical trials.

WECT reached out to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for comment on the regulation of ketamine for the treatment of mood disorders, and the FDA said it is not able to comment on specific trials, but that ketamine is currently only approved for use as an anesthetic, meaning any treatment for psychological conditions is off-label, although may be appropriate if a provider deems medically necessary.

Dunaway started out with five ketamine infusions, and now receives monthly maintenance doses. He said the treatment is highly effective for him, and he continues treatment to avoid any deterioration in mental health.

"I think that it will become more and more popular as people realize the benefits and the utility of ketamine infusions," Armitage said.

Copyright 2017 WECT. All rights reserved.