How some women are using ketamine-assisted psychotherapy to treat postpartum depression

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For Sam’s first trip, he took a ketamine pill, put a mask over his eyes, and was told to relax and open to whatever came up: images, memories, feelings. Unlike a traditional therapy session, she didn’t talk about his struggles. Instead, she was invited to observe whatever emerged during her journey.

“My therapist said I would move out of my conscious mind and into a transformational space of… ‘non-ordinary consciousness,’” Sam explains. “I was a little nervous, but he trusted her.”

As the ketamine began to work, Sam says her body felt heavy and she fell into what she describes as a “dreamy state.” She felt a bit disoriented at first, until she remembered the words offered by her therapist and she was able to go deeper into the experience. She later recalls being greeted by a feeling she had never experienced: self-pity. During her journey, she also saw herself as a baby and connected with her own sense of innocence. “I remember saying I’m lucky because I can take care of myself.”

Similar insights can emerge in talk therapy, but this can take a long time because the human mind is trained to avoid thoughts and feelings that cause discomfort. However, with ketamine therapy, there can be an “ego dissolution” that allows these repressed feelings and memories to surface without the mind getting bogged down in reactivity, rumination, or judgment.

Sam’s self-critical thoughts paused during her journey, allowing her to create a new narrative about her maternal experience. “She showed me a new way of thinking about myself,” she says. “Instead of turning [in worry], I could listen to my instinct. I can’t even explain the freedom this change has given me.”

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Some experts call this new perspective a “new mind,” and it may be one of KAP’s immediate benefits. The idea is that when mothers take a break from their worries, obsessions and spirals of shame, they can see that it is possible to think and feel differently.

How can I know if KAP is right for me?

When treating postpartum depression, talk therapy, medication, and group support remain first-line treatments because numerous studies show they are successful. However, for women with severe or recurring PPD, ketamine is another medicinal tool, says Dr. Schultz.

And while plenty of research suggests antidepressants can ease maternal depression, Dr. Schultz says they’re not for everyone. Unwanted side effects like drowsiness and weight gain can be difficult to tolerate. “Ketamine’s side effect burden is minimal, and when it works, it tends to work quickly,” adds the psychiatrist. For this reason, it can be helpful for depressed mothers who have not found relief with therapy or medication alone.

Birth trauma or childhood trauma often underpins maternal suffering. In these cases, KAP can help a new mother process her trauma by providing the space and distance to stop re-experiencing frightening triggers.

Because ketamine is a Schedule III substance, it is understandable that mothers worry about becoming dependent on the drug. However, all ketamine psychotherapy work is closely supervised by a physician or nurse practitioner. That said, KAP’s ability to treat postpartum depression is still very new, so all mothers should consult with their obstetrician or mental health provider before making a decision.

How can I find a provider?

If you’re considering KAP, it’s important to know that it requires specialized training and is legally offered only by mental health professionals working with a doctor.

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