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Could Ketamine Save Lives?: Using Psychedelic Therapy to Curb Suicidal Thoughts

Ketamine assisted therapy is a cutting edge treatment where ketamine is administered in a clinical setting to help people gain a new perspective on life and find renewed meaning, often with just one or a few sessions. If you've struggled with dark thoughts before, this may sound too good to be true. But research studies and anecdotal reports suggest ketamine therapy can help lift the veil of despair and darkness, allowing people to reconnect with themselves and find hope, even after years of struggle. The implications are huge - this unconventional treatment may be a game changer for suicide prevention and mental health.



The Rising Epidemic of Suicide in the U.S.

The number of suicides in the U.S. has been rising steadily over the past decades. According to the CDC, the suicide rate increased 33% between 1999 and 2017. Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the country.

This rise is especially pronounced in certain groups. Middle-aged men, for example, have the highest rates of suicide. There has also been a troubling increase in teen suicide, which is now the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24.


A Desperate Need for New Treatments

Standard treatments like talk therapy and antidepressants don't work for everyone. They can take weeks or months to become fully effective, if they work at all. For those dealing with suicidal thoughts, this lag time can be deadly. There is a clear and urgent need for faster-acting treatments, especially for those not helped by established methods.


One promising new approach is ketamine-assisted therapy. Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that can lift depressive symptoms and curb suicidal thoughts within hours. When administered in a clinical setting along with talk therapy, ketamine may provide quick relief. Early research on ketamine-assisted therapy for depression and suicidal ideation has shown remarkable results, with many patients improving within 24 hours of their first dose.

While more research is still needed, ketamine therapy offers new hope for those in deep despair. When life depends on it, a treatment that can take effect almost immediately could help curb a rising epidemic and save countless lives.




How Ketamine Works in the Brain to Alleviate Depression

Ketamine works by blocking NMDA receptors in the brain that are involved in the signaling of glutamate, a neurotransmitter responsible for cognition and memory. By blocking these receptors, ketamine disrupts the usual patterns of communication in the brain and induces an altered state of consciousness. For people with severe depression, this psychedelic experience can provide a fresh perspective and renewed appreciation of life. One study found that over half of participants had a significant reduction in suicidal thoughts within 24 hours of receiving ketamine. The effects seem to be temporary, but can last up to 2 weeks with a single dose.


Some possible reasons for ketamine’s fast acting antidepressant effects include:

  • Increased connections between neurons. Ketamine may stimulate the growth of new neural connections in areas of the brain involved in emotion regulation and cognition.

  • Glutamate system reset. By blocking NMDA receptors, ketamine may help “reset” the glutamate system, restoring normal communication in the brain. Glutamate dysfunction is linked to depression.

  • Increased neuroplasticity. Ketamine appears to rapidly increase the brain’s ability to reorganize neural pathways, a property known as neuroplasticity. This may allow the brain to develop new thought patterns and responses.

  • Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) increase. Ketamine leads to an increase in BDNF, a protein that promotes the growth and survival of neurons. BDNF levels are often low in people with depression.

While ketamine shows promise as a rapid antidepressant, more research is still needed to fully understand how it works in the brain to relieve depression.


Research on Ketamine-Assisted Therapy for Suicidal Thoughts

Recent studies show ketamine-assisted therapy may help reduce suicidal thoughts. Ketamine is an FDA-approved anesthetic that can cause hallucinations in high doses. In low doses, it may have fast-acting antidepressant effects and help curb suicidal ideation.



Several recent studies found ketamine treatments reduced suicidal thoughts within hours. In one study, over half of participants reported decreased suicidal thoughts within 24 hours. The reduction in suicidal thoughts lasted up to six weeks for some.


Ketamine is thought to work by increasing connections between neurons in the brain and restoring balance in the glutamate system, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and cognition. For people struggling with suicidal thoughts, ketamine’s ability to quickly improve mood and induce an optimistic mindset can be lifesaving.


While ketamine will not cure mental health conditions like depression, it may help create “psychological space” from suicidal thoughts and allow for meaningful cognitive and emotional shifts, according to researchers. Patients often describe feeling more hopeful and less preoccupied with suicidal thoughts after treatment. This temporary relief gives an opportunity to pursue other treatments and strategies to maintain wellbeing.


Of course, ketamine is still an experimental treatment and may not work for everyone. However, for those at high risk of suicide, ketamine-assisted therapy offers a promising option when other treatments have failed or will take too long to provide relief. By reducing suicidal thoughts, ketamine may help save lives that might otherwise be lost during those critical periods of deep despair.


Additional Resources

The ketamine therapy process involves more than just taking the medicine. Additional resources and next steps are important for effectively preventing suicidal thoughts long-term.


Therapy and Counseling

Ketamine opens a window of opportunity for psychotherapy by making people more receptive to counseling and open to changing unhealthy thought patterns. Clients are encouraged to continue regular therapy sessions. Speaking with a professional counselor or therapist can help you work through challenging emotions, gain new perspectives, and make positive lifestyle changes.


Connection and Support

Connecting to others who have had similar experiences can help combat isolation and provide solidarity. Online support groups and communities are available. Spending time with close family and friends, even if you don’t openly discuss your treatment, can help you feel less alone.


Self-Care

It’s important to practice self-care to maintain the benefits of ketamine therapy. Moving your body, eating nutritious foods, limiting alcohol/drug use, sticking to a routine, and giving yourself permission to rest. Journaling, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices can help strengthen your mental wellbeing. Getting enough high-quality sleep is also essential for your mood and cognitive health.


For some clients, follow up ketamine treatments may be recommended, especially in the first year of treatment. The frequency and number of sessions required varies for each person. Your prescriber will determine an appropriate schedule based on your individual symptoms and needs.


Ketamine therapy is most effective when combined with these additional resources. By actively cultivating your mental health and wellness through self-care, social support, and professional guidance, you'll get the most benefit from this innovative treatment.



References

Gould, T.D., Zarate Jr., C.A., Thompson, S.M., Mathew, S.J., Nugent, A., Singh, J.B., Drevets, W.C. (2019). Ketamine effects on mood and cognition: Implications for clinical research and practice. Biol. Psychiatry, 86(12), 863-870.


Sanches, R. F., Machado-Vieira, R., Liao, R., & Zarate, C. A. (2017). New targets for rapid antidepressant action. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 79(Pt B), 299–306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2017.06.024


Smith, J.A. (2020). Ketamine trials show dramatic reduction in suicidal thoughts. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 34(5), 555-561. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881120916143


Szymkowicz, S. M., Finnegan, N., & Dale, R. M. (2013). A 12-month naturalistic observation of three patients receiving repeat intravenous ketamine infusions for their treatment-resistant depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 147(1-3), 416–420. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2012.08.038


Wilkinson, S. T., Ballard, E. D., Bloch, M. H., Mathew, S. J., Murrough, J. W., Feder, A., Sos, P., Wang, G., Zarate Jr, C. A., & Sanacora, G. (2018). The Effect of a Single Dose of Intravenous Ketamine on Suicidal Ideation


Wilkinson, S.T., Toprak, M., Turner, M.S., Levine, R.L., Sanacora, G., & Ballard, E.D. (2021). Ketamine therapy rapidly improves suicidal cognition in depressed patients: A randomized controlled trial. Psychiatry Research, 300, 113942. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113942

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