Back in the 1960s, scientists were excited about the promise of psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin to treat mental illnesses. In fact, they were used on thousands of patients experiencing depression, anxiety, and OCD.
And yet today, you can legally buy marijuana online – but what about psychedelic substances? Unfortunately, associations with counterculture put an end to the initial boom in psychedelic research and led to them being banned in many countries (including Canada and the US). That’s despite the fact that those ‘60s scientists were on to something: psychedelics do seem to help treat mental illnesses like depression.
Luckily, over the last 15 to 20 years, prestigious institutions have started to seriously investigate whether psychedelics can offer a breakthrough in mental health treatment. The John Hopkins Centre for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research (in the US) and Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research have been pushing forward this new research frontier.
And from what they’ve found so far, it’s good news, especially if you’re one of the 20\ percent of Canadians who experience a mental health issue every year.
What is Depression And How Is It Treated?
Depression is a mood disorder that affects around 8% of Canadians at some point in their life. Far more than just feeling down or sad, depression can have a major impact on your ability to live your life. Those with depression often feel worthless, guilty, hopeless, and anxious all the time. They might withdraw from relationships and lose interest in the things that matter to them.
The most common treatments for depression at antidepressant drugs and psychotherapy. Neither has proven to be a holy grail for treatment. Antidepressants often have to be taken continuously to have an effect: they treat the symptoms, but they aren’t a cure. They can also have many negative side effects, including dulling all your emotions.
Psychotherapy, often combined with antidepressants, can be very effective. But for many, the cost of traditional psychotherapy over a long time is too prohibitive. And there can be long waiting lists to access the support you need.
How Do Psychedelics Work?
Psychedelics – like LSD, magic mushrooms (psilocybin), and MDMA, all alter the way our brains process information. Researchers have used MRI imaging to show that our different areas in our brains become more “in sync” under the influence of psychedelics.
They also reduce activity in areas of the brain connected to our ego, or sense of self. That can lead to common experiences like a greater sense of connection to nature, a distorted sense of reality and time, and a reduced sense of ego.
Could Psychedelics Help Treat Depression?
It might seem strange that restricted drugs that alter your perception of reality could help treat mental illness. But as more research is carried out, it seems more likely to be true. So how does it work?
For treating depression, it seems psychedelics can disrupt repetitive patterns of thought. Often, people with depression get caught up in spirals of negative thought. Psychedelics can help disrupt those thought patterns, and form new neural pathways and connections between ideas instead.
As this field of research grows, there’s more and more exciting research appearing. Here are three of the biggest studies from the last few years, which show just how promising psychedelics could be for mental health treatment.
1. Psilocybin Helps Cancer Patients Overcome Depression
Two in five cancer patients have a mood disorder. Not surprisingly, a life-threatening diagnosis can often lead to increased depression, anxiety, and reduced quality of life. So researchers at John Hopkins Centre for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research set out to explore whether psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) could have an effect on those patients.
They found that psilocybin produced increased mood, higher quality of life, greater optimism, and less fear of death. Excitingly, they also found that 80% of people still felt those effects 6 months later. Participants also said that the experience improved their attitudes to life, themselves, and their relationships. That’s pretty amazing, considering all these patients were facing life-threatening cancer diagnoses.
What’s more, this was a randomized double-blind trial, where neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was getting a high dose of psilocybin. That’s as rigorous as a medical study can get, and shows how far psychedelic research has come in the last few decades.
2. Psychedelic Treatment Helps Overcome Major Depression
Just last month, John Hopkins followed up their previous research with more good news for those suffering from depression. They carried out another randomized trial, this time on patients with major depressive disorder. Participants were given a dose of psilocybin along with supportive psychotherapy.
They concluded that psilocybin-assisted therapy produced “large, rapid, and sustained antidepressant effects in patients with major depressive disorder.” Like the previous studies, they found that the effect lasted several weeks after the dose. And the effect was far larger than existing antidepressants.
That’s exciting because most current treatments for depression – including SSRIs – have to be used continually to have an effect. If just one or two controlled doses of psilocybin can create lasting effects for patients with depression, it could be a paradigm shift in mental health treatment.
3. MDMA-Assisted Therapy Can Treat PTSD
Although many don’t think of it as one, MDMA is a psychedelic (it just doesn’t cause hallucinations as LSD or magic mushrooms do). Instead, it floods the brain with serotonin, leading to strong feelings of euphoria and connectedness.
That’s why it’s a promising treatment for PTSD. In a controlled environment (with a psychotherapist) MDMA allows people to access traumatic memories without the associated negative feelings. When people under the influence of MDMA then undergo psychotherapy, they’re much better able to process traumatic memories and overcome PTSD.
One study found that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy reduced PTSD symptoms 1-2 months after treatment, and for as long as 12 months laters patients still reported improvements. There’s been so much promising research that the FDA in the US has granted MDMA “breakthrough treatment” status, taking it one step further to being approved as a legal treatment.
Psychedelics: A Game-Changer for Treating Depression?
While there’s lots of promising evidence that psychedelics could revolutionize mental health treatment, there’s lots of work still to be done. Many of these studies are fairly small, so more research is needed. And don’t forget, that in all of these studies, psychedelics are being used in controlled, safe environments and supported by psychotherapy and medical professionals. Plus it takes a long time for regulation around these drugs to evolve – just look how long it took to be able to buy marijuana online!
Nonetheless, it’s pretty exciting that psychedelic research is back on the agenda. It’s been a long time since a new treatment was discovered for depression. Meanwhile, millions of people continue to struggle with their symptoms every year. If psychedelics live up to their promise, they could improve the quality of life of millions of people. Stay tuned!