Nine out of 10 people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their deaths, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). But current interventions for those who find themselves contemplating suicide are limited to hotlines, sedative drugs, and talk therapy.
Rates of suicide in the US have risen steadily over the past few years, with roughly 123 people dying this way per day, according to the AFSP. Men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women.
The reasons behind this rise are complex, but two of the biggest problems are a lack of access to mental health care and the stigma that continues to shroud mental illness.
"If you have asthma, it’s not considered your fault. But somehow if part of your brain isn’t functioning, it’s your fault," Cusin said. "It's a residual leftover from more ignorant times."
It's easy to see why the prospect of a new approach would inspire hope.
The promise of a new drug
Physicians and psychiatrists have been doling out the same drugs to people with depression for decades. But research suggests that while antidepressants can work wonders for some people, they don't help everyone. The medications also come with a range of unpleasant side effects that can include weight gain, less interest in sex, anxiety, and insomnia.
Like Cusin, most scientists who work in the space think it's time for a new tactic.
Some of them have found hope in recent months in psychedelic drugs like ayahuasca and magic mushrooms — which appear to reduce depressive symptoms by increasing the connectivity among previously segregated parts of the brain. But those drugs are widely illegal, and many people aren't interested in having a full-blown psychedelic experience.
Several recent studies published over the past few months suggest that ketamine could be the alternative drug people are looking for, since it is legal and also appears to work quickly.
Last December, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center who were working with depressed and suicidal patients found that ketamine worked significantly better at curbing their suicidal thoughts than a commonly used sedative. Most participants in the study saw their moods began to lift within 24 hours. In some people, those effects lasted more than a month.
The authors of a 2012 review of four preliminary studies on ketamine in patients with severe depression expressed surprise at how rapidly the drug appeared to produce positive, precise results.
"The findings were unanticipated, especially the robustness and rapidity of benefit," the authors wrote in their paper. "Ketamine appeared to directly target core depressive symptoms such as sad mood, suicidality, helplessness and worthlessness, rather than inducing a nonspecific mood-elevating effect."
The researchers behind another 2012 study on the drug went called ketamine "the most important discovery in half a century."