Cocaine is a highly illegal substance, banned by the government for it’s mind-altering, potentially life-threatening effects. When it comes to depression, however, some experts–including the late psychology guru Sigmund Freud–believe cocaine may be one of the best treatment options available.
Major depression is considered one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health indicates an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year; a number that represents 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults.
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Treatment often includes a combination of antidepressant medications and psychotherapy, though antidepressant medications can take some time to become effective.
Here is where cocaine enters the scope of depression treatment. Cocaine effects the brain in a similar manner as approved antidepressant medications.
Dr. Matthew Johnson, who researches behavioral pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE the illegal drug is almost identical in makeup to methylphenidate, commonly known by the brand name Ritalin. Johnson indicated he wasn’t surprised to known cocaine was being sought after as a depression treatment, in blind studies, participants could not distinguish the difference between cocaine and Ritalin administration.
Cocaine has a slight edge over other medications as well. It’s effects are instantaneous whereas many approved depression drugs take time to build in the body and change the brain’s neurotransmitters.
“The idea of using cocaine, or drugs extremely similar to cocaine, for depression or related disorders is not new,” Johnson said.
Before it became classified as an illegal substance, cocaine was a staple in many medical treatments. It was so common Sigmund Freud wrote a paper on its merits, though he developed a serious addiction after experimenting on himself.
Forums across the Internet are filled with personal accounts of how cocaine brought people out of depression, and some individuals even claim it saved their lives. Of course, the downside to cocaine is it’s highly addictive nature and what it can do to the body.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates cocaine can cause restlessness, irritability, anxiety, panic, and paranoia, and once addiction has led to cocaine abuse, cardiovascular effects, including disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attacks; neurological effects, including strokes, seizures, headaches, and coma; and gastrointestinal complications, including abdominal pain and nausea are all possible. In some cases, first time cocaine use has resulted in sudden death.
It is this potential for abuse that keeps cocaine from ever being truly considered as a depression treatment, despite the fact scientific review suggests individuals with no history of substance abuse and who don’t respond to traditional antidepressants may benefit.
“Look, I’m not recommending that anyone go out and find cocaine and use it as an antidepressant,” said Johnson in closure. “But scientifically, the idea that some people have reported that cocaine has been helpful for their depression is not a crazy idea. And there is sufficient research with very related drugs that suggest that there’s probably a core truth there.”