This veteran says ketamine therapy changed his life. But Veteran Affairs won't pay the thousands in costs
Government department says there's a lack of evidence of treatment's safety and efficacy
WARNING: This story cites suicide.
A navy veteran based in Comox, B.C., is frustrated he can't get reimbursed for ketamine-assisted-therapy — even though, he says, it's the only thing that has truly helped him.
Corey Pettipas served in the navy for nearly 13 years, and was medically discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2021.
He had been going through rehabilitation, and studying for an art therapy diploma, when a traumatic incident occurred: his best friend was killed and his service dog injured.
That sent him into a deep depression. He says he stopped rehab, stopped art therapy, and needed what he called a "paradigm shift."
He had heard about psilocybin therapy, but when making inquiries through his health-care provider, he was referred to Field Trip Vancouver, a private clinic offering ketamine-assisted therapy.
When he couldn't get immediate answers from Veterans Affairs on whether his treatment and travel costs would be covered, Pettipas enrolled in the program anyway — because he was feeling desperate, suicidal, and could not wait, he says.
A program of 13 sessions, approximately four hours each, costs at least $5,000, plus travel and accommodation from Vancouver Island to Vancouver.
He found out later that it would not be covered.
Ketamine is a drug typically used as an anesthetic; in recent years, it's been part of a growing trend of psychedelic therapy.
It can have hallucinogenic effects that proponents say help separate the body from the mind, and get at trauma without having to focus on the stories or thought patterns people can get stuck on.
Shannon Dames, chair of the psychedelic-assisted therapy education and research program at Vancouver Island University (VIU), says that can allow for the sort of paradigm shift Pettipas was looking for — especially for people with what is often referred to as "treatment resistant" depression.
"Oftentimes it's not even important what the story was or where it came from," said Dames. "What's important is that, where it's stuck, it is unstuck or released and we can often let it go without having a story attached to it."
Pettipas, who has now undergone 12 treatments, says it has been "incredible."
He says he has been able to go out to dinner with his partner for the first time in years, and is able to regulate his emotions again.
"I had no idea that I could feel good ever again, or that I could love or make connections or laugh or enjoy music," said Pettipas.
But those good feelings are mitigated by the fact that he's fighting Veterans Affairs to try to recoup tens of thousands of dollars.
While Veterans Affairs will cover ketamine for depression and PTSD in some specific situations, it does not currently pay for ketamine-assisted therapy.
In a statement sent to CBC, it says that's because "the research evidence on the efficacy and safety of this type of treatment, using a standard protocol, is not yet well established."
Two-tiered mental health care
Dames, the psychedelic researcher at VIU, has heard similar statements from insurers of patients in her research programs.
She said it's frustrating because ketamine has been accepted as safe for decades, for use as an anesthetic — and researchers like her are showing it works as a mental health treatment.
She argues it effectively creates a two-tiered mental health system, where the only people who can get treatment are the ones who can afford it.
"It can be pretty frustrating when we are seeing things that work in a real world population and we cannot get funding for it, so it ends up being this like two-tiered mental health system which we now have."
On its website, Health Canada says there are clinical trials underway to determine the safety and efficacy of ketamine-assisted therapy. But in a statement to CBC, it says it only reviews pharmaceutical drugs when their manufacturers apply for a review.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:
Talk Suicide Canada: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text between 4 p.m. and midnight ET).
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling on the website.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.
- A previous version of this story stated that Corey Pettipas was trying to recoup his expenses from the veterans' ombudsperson. In fact, he is trying to recoup his expenses from Veterans Affairs and has filed a complaint with the Office of the Veterans Ombud.May 25, 2023 10:51 AM PT