Healing Hallucinogens: Ketamine is the First Legal Psychedelic Treatment in Columbus

Central Ohio health care providers are using the once-taboo club drug as a treatment for depression and other mental health disorders.

Randy Edwards
Bobby Griffith participated in clinical trials to study the effects of ketamine on depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s pictured here with his wife, Christina Griffith, in their Reynoldsburg home.

Bobby Griffith can’t put his finger on any single event that led to his lengthy battle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Maybe it was the multiple concussions he suffered playing high school sports. Maybe the many tragic events he witnessed as a firefighter, including (and especially) the day he responded to an emergency run and found a close friend and fellow firefighter laid low by a heart attack and was unable to revive him. Maybe it was another close friend’s suicide.

Whatever the reason, his family first noticed gaps in memory and some confusion when he was trying to recall stories. Eventually, there were thoughts of suicide and a general personality shift that made Griffith, and everyone around him, unhappy.

“I was hateful, cynical and always looking for an argument,” says Griffith, now 57, of Reynoldsburg. “If I couldn’t make other people miserable, I couldn’t be happy. It has cost me friendships, and it has cost me relationships with family. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on, and they sure didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

Encouraged by his wife, Christina, who also suffers from depression and PTSD, Bobby sought mental health care and began a long series of treatments, including group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of psychotherapy. He was also prescribed antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Nothing worked for more than a short time.

Two years ago, he was invited to participate in clinical trials to study a nontraditional use for ketamine, a drug used since the 1960s as an anesthetic and analgesic both in human and veterinary medicine. Also known by the street name “special K” and as one of the popular “club drugs” for the short-lived euphoria it provides, ketamine can, in higher dosages, have psychedelic effects, including hallucinations and dissociation (feelings of detachment from self and surroundings).

The results were nearly immediate, and astounding, Griffith says. “There is nothing I have tried in the last 20 years that has worked like this and so quickly.”

In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a nasal spray containing esketamine, a ketamine derivative, to help people with treatment-resistant depression, which means they have tried two other antidepressants and they have not been helped. Ohio State University’s Harding Hospital began using the nasal spray for selected patients in 2020, says Dr. Subhdeep Virk, the medical director of the hospital. Harding also has been offering, since 2018, intravenous ketamine infusion therapy, which is not approved by the FDA specifically for depression but can be prescribed “off label” by qualified medical professionals.

Researchers have been studying ketamine as a treatment for depression for more than a decade, Virk says, and the results have been encouraging. “In some studies, the response rate was as high as 70 percent, which is significant,” she says.

Traditional antidepressants can take up to six weeks to take effect, and up to two-thirds of patients using traditional antidepressants continue to struggle with depression, Virk says. In contrast, ketamine takes effect within hours or days, an important factor in treating major depressive disorder, a condition that leads to suicidal ideation in 20 percent of patients.

“Ketamine filled a void,” Virk says. “We didn’t have antidepressants rapidly acting on symptoms.”

Ketamine works on different receptors in the body than the “classic” psychedelics, such as LSD and psilocybin, and the dosages used for treatment of depression aren’t likely to lead to hallucinations, Virk says. Still, patients have reported feelings of sedation and dissociation, which is why the treatments must occur in a clinical setting and patients must be monitored for two hours.

OSU has restricted its therapies to patients with depression, but other health care providers promote ketamine as a treatment for other mental health disorders. Happier You, a clinic in Gahanna’s Creekside development, offers IV ketamine clinics for treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, and treatment-resistant forms of depression and PTSD, as well as depression caused by bipolar disorder.

Happier You was purchased in September 2022 by Irwin Naturals, a California-based herbal supplement chain, becoming the 11th clinic in Irwin Naturals Emergence, a chain of “psychedelic mental-health clinics,” according to a company press release. Representatives of Happier You and Irwin Naturals Emergence did not respond to requests for interviews, but the press release says the clinic was founded in 2020 by Tara Dillon, a registered nurse and family nurse practitioner.

According to its website, Happier You charges $500 for a session of IV ketamine infusion. That’s the same price charged at OSU’s Harding, and in both cases, patients will not likely be reimbursed by insurance. Virk says insurance coverage varies by state, and ketamine IV treatments are not covered in Ohio. Many insurance providers will cover the cost of the nasal spray treatments, which can be more than $4,000 per treatment day. Virk says the FDA recommends nasal spray patients receive treatments twice a week for four weeks and then weekly for four additional weeks, while OSU intravenous patients receive treatments twice a week for three weeks and then weekly for four weeks.

Christina Griffith, Bobby’s wife of 20 years, says they have had some back-and-forth with their insurance company for reimbursement, but she says the effort is worth it. (Bobby uses the nasal spray.) “Within two days, I could see a difference,” she says. “We were just dumbfounded. He was able to do things. We would go out with friends more.”

The winter holidays have always been difficult for her husband because his friends’ heart attack and suicide fall in November and January, respectively. But during an interview in December, Christina says this year has been different. “He’s excited to put decorations up. Excited to make trips to see family.”

This story appears in the January 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly and the Winter 2023 issue of Columbus CEO.