Using psychedelics to treat mental illness

Using psychedelics to treat mental illness

Depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder: these diseases are among the most debilitating maladies known to man. You may think that everything that could be done to curb the effects of these diseases has been tried, but not quite. The most radical treatments are the ones that the federal government have deemed too harmful and without any justified medical use. What if the feds got it wrong?

That’s what many outspoken researchers in psychiatry ask. In fact, there are whole organizations dedicated to the radical new studies of psychedelics in therapy. Te Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, is perhaps the largest. MAPS conducts research in MDMA and LSD-assisted psychotherapies. They also conduct research using two psychedelics you have likely never heard of before: Ibogaine and Ayahuasca. Studies like these can only serve to help us better understand the effects of these drugs.

Arguably the most dangerous part of psychedelics is our lack of understanding. Most of what we can publicly access are stories of Erowid (a popular online illicit drug forum) users. Right now, there is no clinically accepted procedure in treating patients experiencing a “bad trip.” As a whole, the medical community lacks knowledge about how the effects of psychedelics manifest. There currently exists no indicators relating demographics to effects of psychedelics. And this is problematic, especially for psychotherapists who can’t gauge a patient’s likely reaction to a psychedelic substance. Pharmacological knowledge—that is, how drugs work chemically—is also lacking in comparison to mainstream prescription drugs and most illicit substances.

Ingesting psilocybin is said to be a “transformative” and “religious” experience. Many describe the experience as creating more connections in their mind, and this description mirrors the activity that is actually occurring in the brain. In brain scans conducted while individuals are “tripping,” there is a significantly higher desegregation of brain activity than normal.

In research conducted at Johns Hopkins University, psilocybin exposure resulting in “mystical experiences” was correlated with a reduction in addiction to tobacco. The results are similar for alcoholism, depression and anxiety as well. Of 51 cancer patients suffering from end-of-life depression, 80 percent reported feeling less afraid of death after exposure to psilocybin. There have also been significant results in early testing of other psychedelics as novel antidepressants, cures for obsessive-compulsive disorder, cures for post-traumatic stress disorder and even as a cure for cocaine dependency. Even crazier is the research that suggests people feel they have more meaning and spiritual purpose in their life after only a single moderate dose of psilocybin. This pairs well with the research that found psychedelic use to be associated with lower rates of suicidality. For all of these reasons, parts of the medical community are calling psychedelic drugs a “paradigm shift” in the way we treat mental illness.

I talked to a few students on campus about their experience with “magic mushrooms.” The individuals will remain anonymous. One described the experience as giving him a “clear head, but with a confused sense of reality.” He experienced “warmth, euphoria and mild visual hallucination.” Another had a much worse experience; she remembers trying to “claw the skin off of her face.” And lastly, one gave me advice if I ever tried psilocybin: “When you peak, you gotta smoke weed man. It makes it so much better, trust me. You gotta plan the whole thing out.” He also admitted to trying LSD multiple times.

Clearly, more research is needed to understand the effects and possible medicinal uses of psychedelics. Unfortunately, their Schedule I ranking makes their use in research much less accessible. The research that does exist comes only from private donors or the government. Because of the age of the drugs, they can’t be patented and therefore draw no interest from pharmaceutical companies.

Schedule I drugs allegedly have no medicinal use, but there is now strong evidence to refute that. Mental illness is a public health crisis. Veteran suicide rates are immense. Homelessness is being linked to mental health at an alarming rate. At what point do we start trying the cutting edge?