A new privately-run clinic in Ontario is offering a novel treatment for depression: the drug ketamine.

James Robertson says that visiting the clinic -- the first of its kind in Canada -- has “made all the difference in the world” in his struggles with severe depression.

“I can’t really think of any experience in my life that’s been quite so profound,” Robertson told CTV News.

“Ketamine has made the difference in virtually every aspect of my life in that before ketamine, I was really trending downward to a pretty dark place,” he added. “There was not a lot of hope there; there was not a lot of joy there.”

So far, Robertson has received nine IV infusions of the drug at the Canadian Rapid Treatment Center of Excellence clinic, which is located in a strip mall in Mississauga, Ont., near Toronto. After trying more than two dozen other medications in vain over the years, Robertson says he is finally now putting his life back together.

“It brought me back to a place where I could continue to support my family,” Robertson said.


The Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) describes ketamine as “a fast-acting anesthetic and painkiller used primarily in veterinary surgery” that “is also used to a lesser extent in human medicine.”

Since the 1990s, it has also been a popular street drug. Primarily known by recreational users as “Special K,” CAMH says ketamine causes “vivid dreams and a feeling that the mind is separated from the body” in a phenomenon known as “dissociation.”

According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people suffer from depression globally. In Canada, it is believed that about one quarter of cases are what has been dubbed “treatment resistant depression.”

Frustrated that many of his patients weren’t being helped by existing antidepressant medications, psychiatrist Dr. Roger McIntyre opened his Mississauga clinic six months ago.

“They’re going to receive a very novel, very innovative new therapy that for the very first time can reduce symptoms in a matter of one to two days and can get them functioning again in a similar period of time,” McIntyre told CTV News. “We’ve never had anything like this in this county.”

McIntyre’s clinic is the first of its kind in Canada to offer the rapid-acting drug for depression, outside of clinical trials. Such trials have shown that ketamine can be a potent antidepressant, quickly lifting the mood in about 50 per cent of patients and even stopping suicidal ideations in a matter of hours. Scientists, however, admit that they still don’t know exactly how it works, although some believe that it may help grow new cells in the parts of the brain affected by the disorder.

“We’re seeing for the first time in many years patients getting better, not just from the objective position -- our position -- but most importantly from their position,” McIntyre, who is also a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto and the head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at Toronto’s University Health Network, said.

His clinic now has nearly 200 patients.

“I think what’s more important than getting symptoms improved is getting people functioning again,” McIntyre added. “And we have people going back to work for the first time in two to three years, first time in five years; we’ve got people saying that I’ve got now the ability to be part of my relationship again with my spouse, my partner, my family -- whatever the case may be. And this has renewed an optimism that people have not had for many, many years. When people go through one failed treatment after the other, they lose hope. And this treatment has given them hope.”


The treatment, however, comes at cost: roughly $750 per IV infusion -- and some patients require ongoing treatments. Provincial health insurance plans, moreover, have not agreed to cover it yet, though there are people currently advocating for just that.

“There is a cost associated with this treatment that not everyone is going to be able to afford and I would like that to change,” Robertson, the patient, said. “In the next few years, I’d like to make it accessible to everyone.”

Mark Henick, a mental health advocate and speaker, is also concerned that such a promising antidepressant is currently only available for those who can pay or are willing to risk buying drugs on the black market.

“We need to make sure that the objective is still in helping people and not a for-profit objective; that we’re not taking advantage of vulnerable people who feel desperate,” he told CTV News.

For his part, McIntyre hopes that charities or philanthropists step in to cover the costs for those unable to pay.