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Mental health is a major pandemic in and of itself, with surveys showing a 300 per cent increase in people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression during the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the availability of hundreds of drug treatments, rates of mental illness continue to increase and “there hasn’t been any pharmacotherapy innovation for mental illness,” said Dr. Michael Verbora, medical director at Field Trip Health, during Benefits Canada‘s 2021 Mental Health Summit. Only 30 per cent of people who start an antidepressant get results, he said, “which unfortunately is marginal because 25 per cent who take a placebo see results.”

Scientific evidence demonstrates that ketamine, a drug traditionally used for anesthesia, in combination with appropriate therapy may, “for the first time in a long time, be able to cure some mental-health diseases,” said Dr. Verbora. For the last 20 years, research has shown that ketamine has rapid antidepressant effects and some people’s mood changed within a day of a single session.

Read: Pandemic taking toll on employee mental, physical health: survey

Specialized ketamine-assisted psychotherapy clinics are providing treatment for depression, stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance-use disorder. It has the potential for better results than traditional antidepressants for many people who are experiencing treatment-resistant depression, which is when they’ve failed a minimum of two pharmaceuticals in the past, according to Dr. Verbora.

In addition, he noted ketamine can deliver an immediate antidepressant response compared to traditional antidepressants that might take four to six weeks or longer to have any kind of impact. More than 70 per cent of people with treatment-resistant depression who were treated with ketamine achieved an antidepressant response, while patients who completed a ketamine-assisted psychotherapy program saw an average reduction of 54 per cent in anxiety scores and 56 per cent average reduction in depression scores.

This result can be significant for employers, said Dr. Verbora, because research indicates that every one per cent reduction leads to a 1.65 per cent gain in productivity. “This aligns with what we see in the clinic. It is hard not to get too excited because the results are so profound.”

Also speaking during the session, Dominique Morisano, chief psychologist at Field Trip Health, noted many people are experiencing difficulties that aren’t being adequately addressed in the typical approaches to mental-health treatment. Ketamine is an incredible option for those with treatment-resistant depression, who have tried everything and often feel quite stuck, she added.

Read: Anxiety on the rise, overtaking depression as top mental-health concern: analysis

Ketamine works by increasing the neuroplasticity of the brain and the ability to integrate new information, said Morisano. “It takes people’s minds out of their default mode and allows them to integrate potentially older memories that may have been covered up or work with feelings that may have been under the surface and be more open to new ways of doing things in their daily lives.”

Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy is more than just treating patients with ketamine, she added, noting it also involves a therapeutic relationship and the integration of insights that might have come up during ketamine exploration sessions.

For employees who need it, employers can access ketamine-assisted psychotherapy by providing access to therapy sessions under existing mental-health benefits, as well as by promoting the option as part of their employee mental wellness toolkit. They can also encourage their disability partners to consider ketamine-assisted psychotherapy as an option for those who are off work due to treatment resistant depression or PTSD.

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.