A Breakthrough for Severe Depression

Jessica Donlon, 17, celebrated two milestones that a few months earlier she wouldn’t have believed possible: She attended her senior prom and graduated from high school. 

For over four years Jessica had suffered from depression that was so severe, she had difficulty getting out of bed. She had given up cheerleading and softball, spending much of her time sleeping. She tried many kinds of medications and therapies, but her depression was getting worse. “She suffered degrees of not wanting to live, but it was getting stronger and more frequent,” says her mom, Theresa Roy. 

Theresa heard about a clinical trial using ketamine—an anesthetic often used in children—to treat severe depression, and she thought it might help her daughter. Earlier studies at Yale and elsewhere have shown that ketamine can provide rapid and dramatic relief for depression in adults. “Suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents, and while there are some effective treatments, a substantial proportion of adolescents don’t respond to those treatments,” notes psychiatrist Michael Bloch, MD, MS, associate professor in the Yale Child Study Center, who led the clinical trial. 

“My hope was to get relief,” Jessica says, “to have a break in my mind.” She received two infusions— one contained the ketamine, while the other contained another anesthetic that was used as a control. Immediately after one of the infusions, her symptoms improved significantly. Being in a clinical trial helped her turn a corner.

Jessica and her mom thought carefully before they decided to enroll her in the clinical trial. After going the route of trying different kinds of medications and therapies that included behavioral therapy, inpatient treatment, and intensive outpatient treatment, they felt they were out of options. In order to take part in the study, Jessica underwent a detailed psychiatric interview. Dr. Bloch spoke with her referring psychiatrist, and he reviewed her history to make sure it was an appropriate treatment. Study staff explained to Jessica and her mom what the study involved, as well as potential side effects. Ketamine is often used in the emergency room and is known to be relatively safe. In the study, it was given at Yale New Haven Hospital at a lower dosage and a slower rate, supervised by a doctor with expertise in conscious sedation. Jessica was also monitored for two weeks after the infusion, and she had Dr. Bloch’s and the research coordinator’s cell phone numbers to call at any time in the event of an emergency.

For Jessica, the single infusion of ketamine was so effective, she was able to continue the treatment through the Yale Interventional Psychiatry Service at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. “She started having a future again, looking forward to a life worth living,” says her mom. She is attending a residential post-secondary program in anticipation of enrolling in college. “The study changed her life and mine,” says her mom. “It moved us forward.”

The study changed her life and mine. It moved us forward.