A look into the use of psychedelic-assisted therapy for the treatment of people suffering from mental illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety, and addiction.
LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, DMT, and MDMA. When reading those words, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, those are just party drugs.” Or maybe something else comes to mind – you might think of barefoot hippies rolling at Woodstock while bearing buttons that read ‘End the War in Vietnam!’ But these drugs are so much more than just the stereotypes in which they are associated with.
Prior to the counterculture movement of the 1960s, psychedelic substances were used as healing tools in sacred ceremonies performed by indigenous tribes; one example of this is the use of peyote by the Native Americans of the Southern Plains. These substances are not just party drugs – they’re tools that can be used to help treat individuals with mental illnesses such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.
Last summer, out of sheer curiosity rooted in some late-night YouTube conspiracy theory binge, I spent some time doing research on psychedelic substances and their effects on the brain. Fascinated by the plethora of information, I fell into a spiral of articles, TED Talks, and case studies detailing how these ‘college party drugs’ actually had tremendous benefits on the treatment of mental illness. Specifically, I came across an interesting article which entailed the history of psychedelic substances and specific results from a variety of treatment studies performed on patients. Prior to doing any research, I had very little knowledge of how these substances operated, let alone that there was even a world of benefits that they offered besides some sort of ‘trip.’
So let’s get into how these substances actually affect the brain on a chemical level.
When the brain is on a psychedelic substance, think of it as being unhinged from incoming sensory information – it has the ability to conjure up images and feelings from deep within the subconscious. Think of it as opening a portal to the user’s mind, allowing them to come directly into contact with feelings that were unrecognizable before. When we sleep, our brain isn’t using incoming sensory information to produce the visuals we see in our dreams; rather, it uses information already held in the subconscious. This is why dreams are known as revealing the individual’s inner fears and desires they might have previously been unaware of. But as we’ve all faced the frustration of forgetting an interesting dream, we know that their contents are extremely difficult to track.
Psychedelic substances help with that – rather than waking up from a dream and forgetting everything but the largest details, you would have the ability to consciously access those same visuals and feelings, just awake rather than asleep. For this reason, hallucinogens (each serving a different, yet equally valuable purpose) are great tools for the treatment of mental illnesses, as they allow patients to get in touch with their deep-rooted issues. For example, MDA (an empathogen) helps facilitate the bond between the patient and their doctor by increasing empathy. MDMA, on the other hand, helps reduce fear in patients, allowing them to open up and trust their therapist; this makes treatment much more effective, especially for patients suffering from PTSD.
Then we have the classic psychedelics, substances such as LSD and mescaline which provide the “portal effect” which allows patients to look into themselves and experience a “trip.” When undergoing a session, the patient is monitored and is placed in a relaxed setting, where the therapist guides the patient through their psychedelic experience, helping them pick apart everything they see, hear, or feel. But it isn’t just the concept or process of the treatment that astounds me – it’s the results. For example, in one study performed on individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, “Outcomes included a significant and sustained reduction in PTSD symptoms…with 83% of participants…showing a reduction in symptom severity of more than 30%…some members of the experimental group no longer met criteria for PTSD as stated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder…” (Tupper). But the best part about psychedelic-assisted therapy is that there are few (if any) serious adverse effects. The main reason for this is because the substances are being used in a monitored, controlled manner – all harms come solely from associated behavior, something that only arises from a lack of supervision. This is why researchers prioritize setting, dosage, and safety when structuring treatment sessions.
Psychedelic substances simply make the process of treatment easier and smoother for both the patient and their therapist.
Even just one session can be enough to invoke intense personal reflection which has astounding effects on a patient. In one example brought up in a TED Talk I viewed during my research, the speaker explained how one patient suffering from PTSD was essentially healed after just one session of treatment – during his first psychedelic experience, he was able to get in touch with the root of his trauma; in doing so, he was able to discover (with the guidance of his therapist) how he could take that pain and flip it in a positive light, using it as inspiration to continue living.
While this form of treatment still contains laws and is far from a golden solution, it is still a beneficial form of treatment with proven results and little adverse effects. While I know my target audience isn’t necessarily old, cynical boomers against psychedelic substances, I still think we collectively need to open our minds (pun definitely intended) and look at hallucinogens from a more mature lens. While LSD may be trademarked for use at three-day raves, there is a whole other world of uses for these substances: uses with the power to transform troubled lives forever.
Doblin, Rick. “The Future of Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy.” TED, https://www.ted.com/talks/rick_doblin_the_future_of_psychedelic_assisted_psychotherapy?language=en#t-349702.
“Psychedelics: Past, Present and Future: Mark Haden: TEDxEastVan.” Amara, https://amara.org/en/videos/bFTI1ihsSaOU/info/psychedelics-past-present-and-future-mark-haden-tedxeastvan/.
Tupper, Kenneth W, et al. “Psychedelic Medicine: a Re-Emerging Therapeutic Paradigm.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal De L’Association Medicale Canadienne, 8872147 Canada Inc., 6 Oct. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592297/#b3-1871054.