The Untapped Potential of Psychedelics in Mental Health Treatment

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Offering breakthroughs across the board in Mental Health treatment, state-prohibited Psychedelics may yet be of paramount importance.

In 2017, mainstream media outlets like the BBC, The Economist, and VICE started taking notice of ‘Micro-dosing’, an emerging practice of consuming small quantities of psychedelics as a part of a regular lifestyle. Not to be conflated with fully fledged psychedelic trips, these were taken at ‘subperceptual levels’, with the intent of greater mental wellbeing, neuroplasticity, and creativity. A far cry from imagined 1960s free-loving hippies, a subtler image of psychedelic users as Silicon Valley engineers and successful professionals is quietly emerging. This apparent surface level shift may, in fact, be symptomatic of an impending reversal of the state enforced hostility to psychedelic compounds – one that grew out of the very same counter-culture milieu.

When, in 1960, little known Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary set out to Cuernavaca, Mexico to participate in a Psychedelic Mushroom ceremony, he had no idea his journey would help set in motion the first wave of psychedelia in Western civilisation. Returning from the trip, Leary was so moved by his experience that he and colleagues swiftly set up the Harvard Psilocybin Project to investigate the plant’s potential. Aware that such psychedelic plants had been used for healing and ritual by natives in the Americas as early as 8,000BC, Leary and those around him sought to apply modern science to ancient medicines.

The initial results were promising – psilocybin appeared to consistently produce consciousness-altering ‘spiritual’ experiences, as well as powerful impacts on addiction and criminal recidivism. However, Leary and those around him were soon swept up in the milieu of the counter-culture. Peace & love hippies, anti-war activists and the generation’s greatest artists, including Hendrix, Dylan, The Beatles, and the like were adopting the psychedelics as a part of a broader social revolutionary movement. Leary’s ‘Harvard Circle’ too began to resemble a psychedelic commune, following his proclamation in 1966 of ‘psychedelic revolution’ and his calls for people to ‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out.” Soon enough, legislators moved to stamp out the apparent threat to public morality and safety.

President Richard Nixon, championing the conservative ‘silent majority’, attempted to distract the public from the bloodshed of Vietnam by launching a moralistic ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971. Psychedelics, along with a slew of other substances, were criminalised as Schedule One status substances, precluding any research and classifying them as holding “no medical use”, subject to abuse and fundamentally unsafe. The laws spread around the world via the UN, and Nixon went on to label Leary “America’s most dangerous man”, with much of the public agreeing. The legacy of these two polarising men would result in decades of prohibition, buttressed by state-backed scaremongering in ‘public awareness’ campaigns.

Richard Nixon, War on Drugs, Psychedelics

U.S. President Richard Nixon at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Nixon was a proponent of the ‘War on Drugs.'(AP Photo)

For the following generation interested in psychedelics, crippling federal research prohibitions proved to be insurmountable barriers. However more recently, a burgeoning group of devoted scientists have increasingly sought to return psychedelics to the fore of research, beginning with the foundation of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) in 1986. Since that time, they have taken every stringent step of regulatory and scientific compliance necessary to ensure no repeat of government backlash. Strikingly, surveying just a smattering of the pilot studies conducted in the last decade, they have found psychedelic compounds offering far more medicinal potential than their esoteric 1960s predecessors could have imagined.

In pilot studies at John Hopkins, even small and single-dose administered psilocybin – the active compound of magic mushrooms –  was able to treat tobacco addiction in patients resistant to other therapies, with 80% of participants remaining abstinent after treatment.¹ More remarkably, the administration of a small single dose of psilocybin to depressive terminal cancer patients found a significant alleviation of death anxiety effective six months afterwards.² It seems increasingly clear that psychedelic-assisted treatments could hold the key to superseding the current lengthy, expensive, and often ineffective models consisting of long-term counselling and anti-depressants.

In the last century, medical science has made unbelievable progress in the treatment of many diseases. With credit to the discoveries of antibiotics and effective immunisation, the threats of smallpox, polio, and tuberculosis have been wiped out in much of the world. Yet no such drastic leaps forward have occurred in psychiatry. Complex, debilitating, and lasting conditions like PTSD are treated inadequately. Suicide today surpasses combat death as the highest cause of death for our men and women in uniform. Depression and anxiety appear by many measures to be on the rise as a result of an increasingly atomised society in the social media age.

The costs of these invisible and widespread ailments are massive, with estimates that depression costs the US alone $210 billion a year.⁴ It comes as a shock to many then that MDMA, known through the rave scene as “ecstasy”, was this last year designated a potential “breakthrough therapy” in the treatment of PTSD, with FDA approval for final phase clinal trails that could “potentially bring relief to millions of suffering people.”³ Treatment-resistant PTSD and depression are destructive for families and society at large – oft times inadequately met by an overstrained healthcare system. Psilocybin based treatment has proven to have potentially breakthrough impacts on treatment-resistant patients, with several in a pilot study in complete remission after six months.⁵

Without dismissing that these compounds reliably induce ‘spiritual’ and life-changing experiences in the healthy⁶, our focus must be on the sick. Broader clinical applications will undoubtedly emerge with further research, but dismissing psychedelics is no longer an option for any well-informed policymaker. Continued restrictions on medical research of psychedelics are an abdication of responsibility that states owe to their citizens. The real human cost of the status quo may be incalculable – the opioid epidemic in the US killed 63,600 Americans in 2015 alone.⁷ With communities, states, and cities awash with legal and illegal opioids, the United States is undergoing a public health disaster, with more dead Americans in one year than troops killed during the entire duration of the Vietnam war.

Though there is plenty of cause for pessimism, the mostly overblown resistance to medicinal marijuana was cut off at the knees in just a decade, as the most prohibitionist conservatives were forced to reckon with ever-mounting evidence. As clinical trials continue, and a greater understanding of these compounds and their applications become clear, a similar reckoning will no doubt occur. The real question – how much longer will reactionary, ill-informed dogma continue to stifle policymaking at the expense of ordinary people?

¹Johnson, M. W., Garcia-Romeu, A., Cosimano, M. P., & Griffiths, R. R. (2014). Pilot study of the 5-HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction. Journal of Psychopharmacology

²Grob, C. S., Danforth, A. L., Chopra, G. S., Hagerty, M., McKay, C. R., Halberstadt, A. L., & Greer, G. R. (2011). Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(1), 71–78

³Khaliya, “The Promise of Ecstasy for PTSD, New York Times, November 3rd, 2017

Paul Greenberg, The Growing Economic Burden of Depression in the U.S, Scientific American, February 25th, 2015

⁵Carhart-Harris RL, Bolstridge M, Day CMJ,(2017) Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up, Psychopharmacology (Berl),

⁶Griffiths, R.R., Richards, W.A., McCann, U. et al. Psychopharmacology (2006) 187: 268

⁶CBS, “Soaring Opioid drug deaths cause US life expectancy to drop for 2nd year”, December 21st, 2017

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