Onetime party drug hailed as miracle for treating severe depression

Feb 4, 2016

Photo credit: Amarett Jans/Courtesy of Enrique Abreu


It was November 2012 when Dennis Hartman, a Seattle business executive, managed to pull himself out of bed, force himself to shower for the first time in days and board a plane that would carry him across the country to a clinical trial at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda.

After a lifetime of profound depression, 25 years of therapy and cycling through 18 antidepressants and mood stabilizers, Hartman, then 46, had settled on a date and a plan to end it all. The clinical trial would be his last attempt at salvation.

For 40 minutes, he sat in a hospital room as an IV drip delivered ketamine through his system. Several more hours passed before it occurred to him that all his thoughts of suicide had evaporated.

“My life will always be divided into the time before that first infusion and the time after,” Hartman says today. “That sense of suffering and pain draining away. I was bewildered by the absence of pain.”

Ketamine, popularly known as the psychedelic club drug Special K, has been around since the early 1960s. It is a staple anesthetic in emergency rooms, regularly used for children when they come in with broken bones and dislocated shoulders. It’s an important tool in burn centers and veterinary medicine, as well as a notorious date-rape drug, known for its power to quickly numb and render someone immobile.

Since 2006, dozens of studies have reported that it can also reverse the kind of severe depression that traditional antidepressants often don’t touch. The momentum behind the drug has now reached the American Psychiatric Association, which, according to members of a ketamine task force, seems headed toward a tacit endorsement of the drug for treatment-resistant depression.

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One comment on “Onetime party drug hailed as miracle for treating severe depression”

  • My history of depression is remarkably similar to Dennis’ in that I have suffered for much of my 65 years and have been on the not so merry-go-round of antidepressants ever since Prozac first appeared followed by a multitude of its SSRI offshoots. None gave me any long term significant improvement and the side effects were often pretty horrendous ranging from increased regularity of migraines, acute nausea and severe anxiety. My last ditch attempt was a round of ECT which resulted in exacerbation of my spinal problems as each convulsion seemed to throw my back and neck out of whack.
    I heard about Ketamine trials taking place here in Stdney so enquired if I might be a candidate. The deal was that I would need to travel a fair distance (by public transport) every day for 6 weeks to take part in a blind trial i.e. that after completing the 6 weeks I could , in fact, have been on a placebo . As in Dennis’ case, sometimes just getting out of bed and showering were nere impossible when my depression was at its worst so it was just a step too far for me to participate in this trial with no guarantee that I was actually receiving the Ketamine itself and not some sugary substitute.
    I live in hope that the real Ketamine might be made available before I die. Thank you for detailing Dennis’ inspiring story. I hope he can now truly enjoy what life has to offer without the disabling burden of depression.

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