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Psychedelics for Mental Health Treatment

Psychedelics for Mental Health Treatment

Mental health treatment plays a critical role in the overall wellbeing of the nearly 800 million people worldwide who experience a mental health disorder annually. Without proper care, symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, phobias, and other mental illnesses could have terrible consequences for patients, their loved ones, and society in general. While some treatments are widely accepted such as – psychotherapy and certain oral medications – these modalities are ineffective for greater than 50% of patients. However, the paradigm is shifting in the options available for how we treat mental health. Many, well respected mental health professionals advocate for the use of psychedelics. Currently, in the United States, ketamine is the only legal psychedelic that can be administered or prescribed to help those struggling with mental health issues. It is rapid acting and highly effective for many people who have not found relief from the traditional oral antidepressants or mood stabilizers. Other psychedelics that are likely to be introduced in the coming years to help with mental health are MDMA and psilocybin. Currently, MDMA is in phase 3 clinical trials sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and is showing statistically significant results.

Timothy Leary and Psychedelics

Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary wasn’t the first academic to look into the benefits of psychedelic drugs like LSD as a treatment for mental health disorders and alcoholism, but he was the most famous and outspoken of all its proponents. He proposed the now fundamental and widely accepted concept of “set-and-setting” when dealing with psychedelics. A firebrand and lightning rod for attention, in 1966, Leary popularized the counterculture-era phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. Leary’s research in the late 1950s and early 1960s set the standard by which the psychedelic drugs would be judged, especially when his behavior became a political weapon. RIchard Nixon once called him, “the most dangerous man in America”. Today, the world approaches his legacy with different optics. 

What Are Psychedelics?

U.S. researchers define psychedelics as “powerful psychoactive substances that alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes. They are generally considered physiologically safe and do not lead to dependence or addiction. Their origin predates written history, and they were employed by early cultures in many sociocultural and ritual contexts.”

Broken down into its roots, the word “psyche” means “soul, mind, or spirit” and “delos” means “to manifest or reveal”. Psychedelics when used in the right “set-and-setting” with proper preparation and integration can be powerfully transformational and help reveal the “true self” to an individual.

Psychedelics for Mental Health Treatment

  • MDMA is the active ingredient in the drug ecstasy and recents studies show it may help lessen the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Psilocybin may reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially in cancer patients when dealing with the existential crisis of death and coming to terms with the end of life.
  • Ayahuasca is native to South America and is used in traditional spiritual ceremonies. It contains the powerful psychoactive compound DMT. It may help reduce problematic substance abuse by helping promote personal or spiritual insights or self-knowledge.

What the Experts Say About Psychedelics

Global efforts to de-criminalize the use of marijuana has led to discussions about the role of “controlled substances” – mostly outlawed – and how they could be used to soothe the worst symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, addiction and other mental illnesses. Here’s what some experts have to say about the role of psychedelics.

  • Michael Pollan, when asked what ayahuasca does to the brain: “One of the most striking things about psychedelics is that they’re not toxic. It’s very hard to say that about any other drug. There is a lethal dose of Tylenol or Advil out there, and indeed, most drugs, but there is, as far as we know, no lethal dose of psychedelics.”
  • Alan Davis, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research on “psilocybin mushrooms” and their role in treating mental disorders like depression: “There are a couple of ways we believe it works. First is the experience itself. People who take psilocybin report having a deeply positive, mystical experience that seems to help them alter their perspective on their situation. More specifically, people with depression tend to feel isolated and disconnected from their daily lives. The experience of taking psilocybin makes them feel an intense interconnection that stays with them after the experience is over. People also report gaining insight into their depression, like they suddenly have an awareness of what they want to change in their life to help them move forward. That awareness, coupled with this mystical-like experience, serves as the catalyst for change.”
  • Albert Garcia-Romeu, a colleague of Alan Davis: “In a nutshell, psilocybin and other psychedelics like LSD bind to serotonin 2A receptors, creating mood-altering effects and changes in brain function. We know psilocybin decreases amygdala blood flow in people with depression, which is associated with better antidepressant effects. This is important because depressive symptoms seem to be associated with over-reactivity in the amygdala. Keep in mind that the data for psilocybin brain mechanisms in depression is very limited, from fewer than 20 people in total. We are only starting to scratch the surface of how this works.”
  • Dr. David Nutt, a professor and neuropharmacologist at Imperial College London. He encourages policymakers to rethink their war on drugs: “An enormous opportunity has been lost, and we want to resurrect it. It’s an outrageous insult to humanity that these drugs were abandoned for research just to stop people from having fun with them. The sooner we get these drugs into proper clinical evaluation, the sooner we will know how best to use them and be able to save lives.”

Final Thoughts

The availability and use of psychedelics and other hallucinogenic drugs peaked in the 1960s thanks to the pioneering work of Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, then crashed a decade later. Today, science believes psychedelic substances like MDMA, psilocybin, LSD, DMT, ayahuasca, ibogaine can play a valuable role in the treatment of mental health and substance abuse disorders. However, we are still at least a few years away from them being legal and clinically available outside of research and religious exemption. Therefore, the only currently legal psychedelic in the United States is ketamine.

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