Fast-acting Ketamine helps reduce suicidal thoughts

When a person feels suicidal, seconds count. Delays could mean a life lost. But what do health professionals have to offer in an emergency?

Until recently, there hasn’t been an effective, fast-acting medication to ease severe depression or counteract thoughts of suicide. Traditional antidepressants can take six weeks or longer to act. That’s why there is growing excitement about the use of ketamine to treat suicidal ideation.

A new study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry (online, Dec. 5, 2017) demonstrated that a ketamine infusion can banish suicidal thoughts within hours for some people. That’s remarkable.

In this trial, 80 people were randomized to receive either ketamine or a benzodiazepine called midazolam. In this double-blind research, both groups got their medicine by intravenous infusion. Not only did ketamine help ease major depression, it also reduced suicidal thoughts directly.

One of the unexpected results of this single-infusion clinical trial was the persistence of the benefit. Most other research has suggested that ketamine loses its antidepressant activity after a week or two. In this study, the improvement lasted for at least six weeks.

The implications of this research are profound. Emergency rooms are overwhelmed with severely depressed patients. Hospitals frequently do not have enough beds to care for suicidal patients. They may be left in the waiting room or in the hallway for days until a room becomes available. Even then, treatments are slow to kick in.

Now that intravenous ketamine infusions have been shown to control suicidal thoughts, emergency physicians may feel justified in administering the drug to desperate patients on the spot.

Ketamine is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating depression or easing suicidal thoughts. As a result, many clinicians may be uncomfortable administering it. Only those who are experienced with such treatment should consider prescribing this off-label use.

This is not the first study of ketamine to show promise. A meta-analysis of five trials found that ketamine “showed a large and consistent decrease of suicidal ideation” (Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, June 2017). Other reviews also report that ketamine has a significant effect on suicidal thoughts (American Journal of Psychiatry, online, Oct. 3, 2017).

We heard this from one reader who has received ketamine infusions: “I feel frantically discouraged when I am too depressed to feel in control of my mind, body and ability to rejoin life. So often, depressed people like me are shunted from hospital to hospital and given drugs that just don’t work. Ketamine is the only medicine that keeps me steady so I don’t want to jump off the nearest bridge.”

Health care providers have expressed concern about the potential side effects of ketamine. When the drug is used to treat suicidal thoughts and depression, the dose is much lower than that used for anesthesia. Still, study volunteers had some mild adverse reactions, especially elevated blood pressure and a spacey feeling during the infusion. The scientists hope that further research on ketamine will lead to the development of new and better drugs that will act more quickly than current antidepressants to treat seriously suicidal people.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon has a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email them via their website:

2017 King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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