A New Depression Treatment Is Changing People's Lives—Doctors Say It's Dangerous


Things have changed a lot since the days when getting a prescription filled meant handing a slip of paper to your local pharmacist after a trip the doctor. Now there are virtual visits, and medical information is available everywhere, from symptom checkers on WebMD to advertisements for medication on TikTok.

While many of these new approaches prioritize convenience, they can be risky. In an article published by the National Library of Medicine, researchers found that some of the potential hazards related to telehealth include the potential for misdiagnosis, as well as privacy and security risks. The virtual prescribing of controlled substances has raised concerns as well—especially in combination with possibly misleading advertising that may result in self-diagnosis. In early 2022, NBC News reported that Meta and TikTok had "pulled advertisements from a major mental health care startup" because the ads "promoted negative body images and contained misleading health claims."

Now, one particular treatment for depression is being advertised on social media—and it's a type of therapy that patients are self-administering at home. Read on to find out why doctors think this is a dangerous idea.

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Depression poses a serious global health risk.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability globally. "Approximately 280 million people in the world have depression," says the site. "Especially when recurrent and with moderate or severe intensity, depression may become a serious health condition." The WHO reports that over 700,000 people die from suicide each year, noting that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in people ages 15-29.

People are trying new depression treatments advertised on social media.

With these statistics, it's no wonder that treatments which are reported to be effective in reducing depression are enthusiastically received, particularly one type of therapy that utilizes a formerly notorious drug. But advising patients to try this therapy at home, unsupervised by a medical professional, is "borderline malpractice," Roberto Estrada, MD, chief medical officer of Lenox Hill Mindcare, recently told Rolling Stone.

"This is a drug that can cause an acute confusional state," Estrada warned. "At minimum, the first treatment should be supervised through telepsychiatry. To give someone a drug and expect them to be in an altered state and monitor their own blood pressure and call it psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, you're not delivering what you're promising."

Ketamine therapy is gaining popularity as a treatment for depression.
Josep Suria / Shutterstock

For years, the drug ketamine—also known as Special K—was known for being an illicit, illegal substance. "Ketamine fell into the category of 'club drug' in the early 1990s," explains Lantie Jorandby, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Lakeview Health addiction treatment center in Jacksonville, FL.

However, the origins of ketamine go back much farther—back to 1962, when it was initially used as an anesthetic, Jorandby says. Now, it's become known as a way to effectively (and legally) address treatment-resistant depression, under the care of a medical professional.

"If a person responds to ketamine, it can rapidly reduce suicidality (life-threatening thoughts and acts) and relieve other serious symptoms of depression," Harvard Health explains. "Ketamine also can be effective for treating depression combined with anxiety." Ketamine therapy is usually administered by a physician in a medical setting, but some new startups are trying to change that approach.

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Taking ketamine without a doctor's supervision is risky.
FG Trade/iStock

Per Rolling Stone, several telemedicine start-ups are prescribing ketamine remotely, for at-home use, in response to its newfound popularity as a treatment for depression. Their social media ads feature "attractive young people raving about the impact of ketamine," journalist EJ Dickson reports.

"The ketamine is prescribed remotely by psychiatric nurse practitioners rather than medical doctors, following what some former patients tell me was a lax screening process," Dickson writes. "And the sessions are not supervised by a trained health care professional, with patients instead being instructed to take the ketamine under the observation of a family member or friend."

Some of the risks of taking ketamine without supervision by a medical professional include drug or alcohol addiction, hallucinations, and psychosis, advises Jorandby. "People need to be monitored by mental health providers when using ketamine," she says. In addition, "ketamine can affect the cardiovascular system, and more rarely, the respiratory system," Jorandby explains. "When administering, careful monitoring of blood pressure pulse and oxygen saturation are necessary." In addition, "due to the dissociative effects of ketamine, behavioral management during administration is also necessary."

If you're seeking relief from depression, always speak with your healthcare provider before trying any new treatment.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.