A Mountlake Terrace clinic is using a novel therapy on some patients with treatment-resistant mental health challenges — but is it safe?
Once considered a dangerous dalliance brought on by the hippie generation, psychedelic drugs encouraged people to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”
However, a growing body of evidence suggests drugs like ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms and ketamine needn’t be so much about escaping reality, but rather, confronting it. Some hallucinogenics have proven beneficial to people struggling with chronic mental health conditions.
Chris has suffered from depression and anxiety for more than a decade. He asked KING 5 not to use his last name for privacy purposes.
“I am very kind and compassionate to other people, but to myself I can be very brutal and for many years I have brutalized myself into a point where it was really affecting my relationship with others and my relationship with the world,” he said.
The Seattle musician was prescribed antidepressants by a doctor, but they just made matters worse.
“It was a horrible experience,” Chris said. “I didn’t feel like myself. I couldn’t connect with people.”
With nowhere else to turn, Chris decided to try treatment with the psychedelic drug ketamine. Ketamine gained popularity in the 1990s as a club drug known as "special k."
Ketamine is an anesthetic commonly used in hospitals and is legal for use in psychiatry. According to the DEA, in 1999, ketamine became a Schedule III non-narcotic substance under the Controlled Substances Act.
In 2019, the FDA approved a nasal spray version for treatment-resistant depression that is only available at a certified doctor’s office or clinic. Doctors are finding Ketamine effective in treating patients dealing with everything from depression and PTSD to drug and alcohol addiction.
In America, today, one in four adults is dealing with some sort of mental health issue. More than 20-million are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“For the people that are suffering, this is life-saving,” said Dr. Rafael Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a Harvard-educated emergency room doctor with 30 years of experience.
He got interested in psychedelics as medicine after becoming frustrated with the lack of new and effective ways to treat addicts brought to his emergency department.
He now operates Telos Therapies in Mountlake Terrace, a ketamine-assisted psychotherapy clinic. Gonzalez has used ketamine on more than 300 patients and says nearly every single one of them found it beneficial.
“Our patients have tried everything they can think of and more,” Gonzalez said. “They’ve been on psychiatric medications for years and they’ve been suffering for years. When they come to us they’re hoping for something that will change the dynamic that will allow them to live and not suffer. That’s what we offer.”
Therapists often describe the way ketamine works on the mind through stories like this one: When you’re a child you set out on your life’s path. As you get older that path gets harder, more like a paved road, and life accelerates. Along that road there are bumps and even some crashes that can hurt us and sometimes get us stuck in unhealthy behaviors, but by now we’re so far down that road we don’t know how to get off. Doctors claim ketamine can help the brain see the whole map and all the new roads you can take to find a better way.
Chris recently allowed KING 5 to sit in on his first-ever ketamine session at Telos. Dr. Gonzalez administered a single shot to the arm. (The drug also comes in the form of lozenges.)
Chris put on a pair of eyeshades and 5 minutes later the trip was underway.
Licensed psychotherapist Scott Ross sat beside Chris to guide him and make sure nothing went wrong. Gonzalez stood by in an office just down the hall.
Chris began breathing deeply and muttering words beneath his breath.
“Surrender to it,” he said.
Within about 10 minutes Chris was fully immersed in the experience.
“I’m dissolving!” he shouted, as Ross looked on attentively. “There are so many possibilities to every single moment.”
“That rational part of the mind that’s trying to make sense of things goes completely off-line,” said Ross.
Ross explained the drug allows certain parts of the brain to talk with other parts that normally don’t communicate with each other. This allows for objective new thoughts to be created that can change old, unwanted behaviors.
“I had a client the other day, she described it as being hooked up to a love machine,” said Ross.
“We don’t know exactly how it happens, but it happens,” added Gonzalez, “and for them it’s transformational.”
University of Washington psychiatrist Dr. Nathan Sackett has studied psychedelics extensively.
He says, in a controlled setting with professionals, the risks of overdose or negative side effects are very low. Sackett also cautioned psychedelics are only truly therapeutic when combined with professional psychotherapy – not simply when used recreationally.
“That’s a concern I have about the narrative about psychedelics in general, that we’re overemphasizing the medicine itself as a cure-all and it certainly is not,” Sackett said. “These substances, whether it’s ketamine or psilocybin or MDMA, they’re really catalysts for the therapeutic relationship, and they’re no replacement for that.
About an hour after taking the ketamine, Chris started to come out of it and began to process the experience with Ross.
“I was scared going in, but it wasn’t scary at all,” said Chris, who said he felt like he had been “dipped in warm honey.”
“My perfectionism just dwindled away,” he said. “It’s like, there’s no need to hold on to that”
Chris said the session allowed him to let go of negative thoughts and realize they are only thoughts. They don’t define him.
“It’s getting beyond thinking,” he said. “It’s moving beyond the conceptual mind that’s always trying to impress and control. This is a revolutionary therapy, I believe.”
A potential revolution of the mind that — 60 years after the sixties — invites us to turn on, tune in and get well.