Saskatoon

'People are desperate,' says Saskatoon psychiatrist offering ketamine treatment for depression

The anesthetic drug ketamine has a reputation as a psychedelic party drug, but for people suffering from severe depression, it can offer fast relief.

Dr. Monika Hooper says up to 40 per cent of patients are travelling from out of province to receive treatment

The Linden Medical Centre in Saskatoon is one of the only clinics in Western Canada that is offering ketamine to people for treatment-resistant depression. (Mont Poll/Shutterstock)

The anesthetic drug ketamine has a reputation as a psychedelic party drug, but for people suffering from severe depression it can offer fast relief. 

The Linden Medical Centre in Saskatoon has been offering the treatment for about a year, and psychiatrist Dr. Monika Hooper said some patients notice an improvement after a single treatment.

"They just feel lighter; they're more engaged with their family; they're more interested in doing things," Hooper told CBC's Saskatoon Morning. "A few of them have been able to return to work, which is quite impressive, and they just feel like they have their life back."

It's one of the only clinics in Western Canada that is offering ketamine to people for treatment resistant depression, and Hooper estimates 40 per cent of patients are travelling from out of province to receive the treatment in Saskatoon.

"People are desperate for these treatments," Hooper said. "They've tried everything else and nothing else has worked."

The clinic recommends six treatments over three weeks. A single treatment costs $525, so a full course of treatments costs $3,150.

The treatment is not covered by the provincial health-care system, though it may be covered by some private health-care plans. Hooper said the cost is a barrier for some people.

Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert has been providing ketamine treatments free of charge since 2012 but hasn't been accepting new patients since the previous head of that program, Dr. Mohammad Hussain, died in October 2019.

Other psychedelic drugs have been put forward as solutions for mental health issues, but Hooper said she would like to see more randomized control trials for substances such as magic mushrooms and LSD.

"The safety and efficacy data for ketamine is very strong. It's been offered for many years in emergency rooms and operating theatres and is used as an anesthetic."

The clinic website says the treatment is given as a continuous IV infusion over 40 minutes. The treatment room has blankets, pillows and a dimmable light, and patients can listen to music during the treatment. Friends and family members can also stay with the patient during the treatment.

Typically, symptom remission lasts four to six weeks, the clinic website says. The clinic recommends returning for a single infusion booster when patients feel it's necessary, though some patients find that over time they can go longer and longer between booster treatments.

Researchers believe ketamine helps restore synapses in the brain that are destroyed by stress.

The hormone cortisol is released when people are stressed, but also during periods of depression, and cortisol can damage neural connections in key areas of the brain.

Ketamine works on the brain's glutamate neurotransmitter, which is involved in communicating between nerve cells. Researchers think this is what provides the immediate effects of relief, which then becomes reinforced with the formation of new synapses.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from Saskatoon Morning and Quirks & Quarks

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