The hallucinogenic ketamine, which also goes by the street name "Special K", is now being marketed as an expensive off-label treatment for hard-to-treat mental disorders, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and bipolar disorder. Private clinics across the country have begun offering the drug to its patients in spite of the fact that academics continue to argue against its usage as a viable and safe option.
In 2012, a clinical trial was run by then Columbia University researcher Carolyn Rodriguez, MD, PhD. These days, Rodriguez is working at Stanford Medicine as an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences. Patients with severe OCD reported feeling like they were able to function normally for a period of up to two weeks after being exposed to only one dose of the drug.
The idea of introducing ketamine as a treatment option began over a decade ago with a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. In this study, ketamine infusions were shown to have provided significant improvements in treatment-resistant depression. Since then, ketamine research has exploded in popularity in the field of psychiatry, and successes have been shown in studies like those conducted by Rodriguez in the areas of OCD, bipolar disorder, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, these studies have been conducted in spite of the fact that researchers are still unsure as to how exactly ketamine works on the human brain. It is also currently unknown whether or not another drug can be developed that would have the same benefits as ketamine without the potential for addictive or hallucinogenic side effects.
Private clinics, however, have been seduced by these reports of the drug's efficacy to the point where they have begun distributing ketamine to their patients as a way to provide more immediate relief – and it's not cheap, either. Insurance companies do not cover ketamine's off-label usage for mental health disorders. The only thing the drug has been approved for by the Food and Drug Administration is its usage as an anesthetic. Therefore, in order to receive repeated infusions of ketamine, patients are laying out hundreds of dollars per dose.
What is arguably just as bad as private clinics prescribing a drug they know next to nothing about is the fact that patients are also taking the risk of trying the drug, knowing that they have just as much or even less knowledge about the long-term risks involved with their use of the drug. Advocates for ketamine's usage for these purposes argue that the dose being used for mental health disorders is less than that which is used for anesthesia or by drug abusers, and that it can be administered safely so long as it is being properly regulated.
However, Rodriguez has since reported that chronic users of the drug beg to differ, providing evidence that long-term usage of the drug in a chronic and high-frequency manner can be linked to increased risks of cystitis, bladder inflammation, and even potential cognitive impairment.