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Tom Hendricks lay back on his bed and pulled a mask down over his eyes. Then he took a ketamine mint and placed it between his cheek and gums. 

He let the electronic music coming through his headphones wash over him. About 20 minutes later, he felt the drug take effect. 

He saw colours and shapes that changed in time with the music. “It almost was a synaesthesia effect where the sounds and music would paint pictures,” he says. Embedded within those pictures, Hendricks saw his consciousness and the dark cloud hanging over it.

Hendricks (a pseudonym), a 51-year-old retired marine living in Texas, had tried dozens of combinations of medications to buy shrooms canada alleviate the depression he had struggled with for decades. 

They all failed. Ketamine was different Hendricks’s depression began to lift. “It was like I was doing therapy with myself,” he says. 

It wasn’t a panacea, of course. He still struggled with suicidal thoughts until electroconvulsive therapy was added. But the ketamine provided desperately needed relief. “It was absolutely life-changing,” he says.

The antidepressant landscape hasn’t changed much since the approval in the 1980s of fluoxetine (marketed most famously as Prozac). 

Most new drugs hit the same targets as the old ones, albeit with fewer side effects. For about two-thirds of people with depression, these conventional medications work. 

  • But for the remaining third people such as Hendricks they don’t seem to have much of an impact. Even when they do work, people often need to take them for weeks before they see any improvement. 
  • “You have a scenario where someone’s depressed and seeks treatment. They try one medication and it takes them a couple of months to know if it’s working. 
  • And then you switch to Schwifty Labs another medication and that’s another couple of months, and before you know it, you’re half a year down the road,” says Todd Gould, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. 
  • Those who respond to ketamine feel relief quickly, “sometimes within hours”, he says.
  • Ketamine, long used as an anaesthetic, is part of a wave of mind-altering drugs that are gaining traction for treating depression. 

  • In the United States, hundreds of clinics now offer the drug as an ‘off-label’ depression treatment (meaning that doctors prescribe it although ketamine isn’t approved for that purpose). 

  • And in 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a related compound — a nasal spray called esketamine — for treatment-resistant depression. 

Other psychedelic compounds are in clinical trials. Psilocybin, the ‘magic’ ingredient in magic mushrooms, is farthest down the path to FDA approval. But although ketamine and now esketamine are available in clinics, many of these substances remain illegal. Psychedelics advocates hope to change that.

Studies suggest that these drugs have enormous promise for depression, and the media has bolstered excitement with stories about people who seem to have been cured of this often debilitating condition. 

But some researchers see more hype than hope, arguing that the studies have been marred by bias and flawed methodologies. 

They worry that risks are being overlooked and that people are, once again, being offered the false promise of a quick fix. “We’re playing on people’s vulnerability,” says Joanna Moncrieff, a psychiatrist and researcher at University College London, and a critic of psychiatric drugs. 

“If you’re unhappy and things are going wrong in your life, you want to think there’s a magic pill,” she says. “We all do.”

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