It has a reputation as a party drug, but some patients say it has transformed their lives after no other treatments helped
When depression takes hold of Helen it feels like she is drowning in a pool of water, unable to swim up to the world above. The 36-year-old former nurse has had mental health problems most of her life. No drugs, hospital stays or therapies have been able to help.
Then one day, during yet another spell in hospital, her consultant told her about a psychiatrist treating patients with ketamine. The psychiatrist in question visited her to discuss using the drug. He warned there were no guarantees, but it had helped some patients.
Related: Ketamine could help thousands with severe depression, doctors say
Psychiatrists hail benefits of ‘transformational’ drug, and call for more trials to explore its potential
Thousands of people with severe depression could obtain urgent relief if experimental treatment using ketamine were made more widely available, medical experts say.
The drug has been championed by doctors and psychiatrists as a potentially life-changing treatment for those with depression who are resistant to medication or suicidally depressed. Medics are calling for more specialists centres and trials to be set up to explore the drug’s potential under controlled conditions.
Related: Royals launch campaign to get Britons talking about mental health
A growing number of people are being prescribed antidepressants, but little is known about the long-term effects. Have you been on medication for years?
In the past decade there has been a doubling in the number of prescriptions written for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRRIs) – the most common antidepressant. NHS research shows there are now more than 70m prescriptions dispensed in the UK in a year, the “greatest rise” of any drug in the last year.
But while the short-term side effects of taking this medication are well-known, there has been less exploration into the longer-term impact of them. In an article for Guardian Weekend magazine, Aida Edemariam spoke to people who had been taking the drugs for many years. She found that many SSRI users report blunted emotions and an impact on sexual function, with the effect lasting long after people have stopped taking pills.
Prescriptions have doubled in a decade, but very little is known about the effect of taking SSRIs for years and years. Is it a lifesaver or a happiness trap?
Sarah never planned to take antidepressants for 14 years. Three years after she began taking them, when she was 21, she went to her GP and asked to stop: 20mg of Seroxat a day had helped her live with anxiety and panic attacks, but she began to feel uncomfortable about being on medication all the time. Her doctor advised her to taper down her medication carefully.
At once, “I was a mess,” she says. “I thought I was losing my mind. My appetite completely went. I lost the best part of two stone. I was anxious constantly. My mouth was dry. It was difficult to sit and be calm.” She became withdrawn, refusing to see friends, and remembers asking her mother to get her a couple of boxes of paracetamol, thinking, “I’m going to have to take all these tablets, because I can’t live like this.”
It’s more reliably predictable that they’re going to get rid of sexual function than get rid of depression
I thought I was losing my mind. I was going to work, but it was difficult to get through the day. My mouth was so dry
I tried to go back to 20mg, but my words became slurry, so the doctor put me back up to 60mg
I would try to come off the pills and felt rubbish again – not more rubbish than before, but the same. So I returned
I visited Peru to find out more about an intriguing ayahuasca study – and to have my own experience with the psychedelic brew
I’m sitting on a blue plastic, wipe-down mattress with my back to a wooden pillar. Within arm’s reach on the floor is a small torch to light my way to the toilet during the night, on the other side an orange plastic bucket to puke into. As the light fades my four companions, each with his or her own plastic mattress and bucket, disappear from view while on every side the barks, croaks, growls and cries of jungle life grow louder. Twenty minutes ago I gulped down a draught of the bitter psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca and I have convinced myself that I can feel its hot, unstoppable progress through my body, from my seething guts into my veins and onwards to my brain.
This is hardly a recreational drug experience, what with the nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, not to mention the possibility a truly terrifying trip, yet thousands now beat a path to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil every year to drink ayahuasca. Some are just looking for an exotic thrill, but others hope for enlightenment and healing from this ancient plant medicine. In the past few years, many of them have been war veterans desperate to escape the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Related: Seeing with eyes wide shut: Ayahuasca inner visions | Mo Costandi | Neurophilosophy Blog
Related: Peru’s ayahuasca industry booms as westerners search for alternative healing
Related: Why psychedelics could be a new class of antidepressant