People living with untreatable depression call on Sask. government to cover ketamine therapy

Ketamine treatment can be 'life-saving' for people living with severe depression that's unresponsive to all other forms of treatment. However, outpatient treatment is costly.

Advocates for the treatment say it will save lives

People living with serious, resistant depression say they were finally able to find a working therapy with ketamine treatment — but they can't afford it. (tommaso79/Shutterstock)

Sammy Paquette believes ketamine assisted therapy can save people living with untreatable depression. 

She has experienced the "life-saving" nature of the therapy.

"It made me feel like I had my happiness back again. I felt like a brand new person," said the Saskatoon woman.  "It was a great feeling, but it was also weird because I just don't think I ever felt so good in my life."

The anesthetic drug has been known in popular culture as a party drug, but it has also been proven to help untreatable and resistant depression when clinically administered in low doses.  

Paquette said she's faced suicidal thoughts and attempts, and depression that makes day-to-day living impossible. 

"I would stay in my pyjamas. I wouldn't brush my hair. I wouldn't brush my teeth, I wouldn't shower. I would need people to come and help me clean my house and take me to appointments." 

Paquette said she tried every option to deal with the depression: counselling, GPs, psychiatrists, multiple medications and emergency room admissions. Then she accessed ketamine assisted therapy through the Dubé Centre at Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital (patients suffering major mental health problems are admitted by a psychiatrist). 

It seemed to work. She said it finally felt like she had been lifted out of the depression.

She hasn't been able to maintain that feeling. Outpatient treatment is expensive. 

Private treatments costly 

The Linden Medical Centre in Saskatoon is Saskatchewan's only private clinic offering ketamine treatment for people living with PTSD or depression. A package of six sessions of intranasal ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and five hours of prep can cost $4,260. Maintenance sessions to follow up are hundreds of dollars. 

The clinic manager previously told CBC the costs to staff the clinic and pay the non-hospital designation fee are steep. A ​psychiatrist​, a​n anesthesiologist​ and a registered nurse are all required for the treatment.

There used to be a more affordable option at the Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert, which had been providing ketamine treatments free of charge since 2012. However, it stopped accepting new patients after the head of that program, Dr. Mohammad Hussain, died in October 2019.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority has offered ketamine assisted therapy at the Dubé Centre since late 2019. The treatment is not available in any other SHA facility. 

Paquette's family is trying to raise money for private treatment. She's fearful as she waits, worrying that the mental illness will prevent her from pursuing her post-secondary dreams. 

Katamine treatment is not covered by the provincial health-care system and is not under consideration for coverage at this time.

Paquette thinks it should be covered.

"It will save a lot of lives," she said.

Sammy Paquette lives with an unrelenting depression that has been unresponsive to a long list of treatments. Then she experienced ketamine therapy and felt good for the first time in a long time. (Submitted by Sammy Paquette)

Clinical counsellor advocates for coverage 

Paquette is not alone. 

Wendy Kritzer said the treatment can save lives by preventing suicides in people living with depression that doesn't respond to anything else. She's also calling on the government to provide coverage. 

"We're losing people," Kritzer said. "We need to help the people with these extraordinary medication costs and for the people that can't afford it. If it's going to save their life, then we need to do it."

Kritzer is a registered clinical social worker who offers counselling. She also saw what the good the drug can do, having had a family member undergo the treatment.

She understands why the costs at the private clinic are so high. That doesn't stop her worry for people who are low-income or don't have families that can help raise money to access private treatment. 

Kritzer said ketamine treatment for admitted patients at the Dubé Centre costs about $100 for a handful of treatments, which is much more attainable. However, admission to the centre is complex and meant for patients in crisis.  

Kritzer said ketamine treatments being more accessible would relieve pressure on Saskatoon's mental health services. 

The people who need it have depression that's proven unresponsive to other treatments. They patients go through a never-ending list of referrals, appointments and medications in search of something that works, and often cycle through the emergency room in crisis.

Wendy Kritzer says that ketamine treatment can prevent suicide among people living with untreatable depression, but it's inaccessible because of the high cost. (Submitted by Wendy Kritzer)

Kritzer has seen people pulled out of unthinkable darkness by the treatment.  She said it's the only hope for some patients.

Dallas Billette feels that way. She was surprised the treatment worked for her because nothing else ever has. Like Paquette, she had four rounds of ketamine treatment after being admitted to the Dubé Centre. 

"It was fantastic," she said. "It worked for me."

The therapy quieted her feelings of hopelessness, severe anxiety and low mood.  She said it lifted the paralysis she felt  and lessened her need for isolation. The sense of contentment and of calm brought about by the treatment seemed priceless to her.

She hasn't been able to feel that again. Just like Paquette, she can't afford it. 

"I don't have the money for that. It's not covered. I'm full treaty and it's not covered by any of that."  

She said saving up the thousands of dollars feels impossible.