A new study suggests that ketamine is far more effective than other sedatives in reducing suicidal thoughts in patients suffering from depression, with its effects manifesting in no more than 24 hours.
Contrary to what is usually reported about the drug, ketamine was not exclusively intended as a horse tranquilizer when it was first developed in the 1960s as an anesthetic. Over time, it became one of the most popular “party drugs,” particularly in the United Kingdom, where more than one-half of all U.K. clubbers admitted having tried the drug in a 2013 survey, according to Talking Drugs. However, new research from Columbia University Medical Center points to ketamine having positive effects, specifically in people harboring suicidal ideations.
As documented in the study published earlier this month in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers analyzed 80 adults suffering from major depression and known to have suicidal thoughts, based on their scores on the Scale for Suicidal Ideation (SSI). The New York Daily News wrote the subjects were randomly selected to join one of two groups, one that was given a low dose of ketamine, and another that was given the sedative midazolam, also in a low dose.
After just 24 hours, the researchers noticed that the people in the ketamine group were much less likely to entertain suicidal thoughts. Those who were given ketamine were in a better overall mood, and also were observed to be less depressed and more awake than those in the midazolam group. There were some side effects reported, including mild dissociation (“feeling spacey,” as described by the New York Daily News) and higher blood pressure, but these aftereffects disappeared in a few hours at most.
Based on SSI readings, 55 percent of the subjects in the ketamine group had a 50 percent or higher decrease in suicidal ideations, while only 30 percent of those in the midazolam group were found to be similarly less likely to entertain such thoughts, Medical News Today wrote. Additionally, ketamine’s positive effects lasted for about six weeks, with its effects on depression estimated to contribute a third of the improvement in SSI scores. This could mean the drug is capable of directly targeting suicidal ideations when administered to depression patients.
“There is a critical window in which depressed patients who are suicidal need rapid relief to prevent self-harm,” explained study lead author Michael Grunebaum, a research psychiatrist at the Columbia University Medical Center.
“Currently available antidepressants can be effective in reducing suicidal thoughts in patients with depression, but they can take weeks to have an effect. Suicidal, depressed patients need treatments that are rapidly effective in reducing suicidal thoughts when they are at highest risk.”
The study’s revelation that ketamine has the potential to quickly reduce suicidal thoughts comes at a time when thousands of Americans take their own lives each year. According to Medical News Today, recent statistics show that suicide is America’s 10th leading cause of death. About 44,193 people per year die by their own hands in the U.S., with another 494,169 hospitalized for suicide-related injuries. The publication added that about 30 to 70 percent of people who attempt to kill themselves suffer from major depression or bipolar disorder.
Given the positive results of his team’s study, Grunebaum said that ketamine “offers promise” as a quick treatment for suicidal thoughts in depression patients. He added that more research may be needed to evaluate the drug’s ability to alleviate depression and suicidal ideations, noting that this could lead to the development of faster acting antidepressants that might also help patients who don’t respond to standard forms of treatment.