What Psychedelic Research Can Teach Us About Mental Health

Psychedelic-assisted therapy has not only proven effective in alleviating terminally ill patients' anxiety, but has also yielded promising results in treating a variety of intractable psychological conditions over the years.
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For the first time in over four decades, researchers in Switzerland -- which is appropriately enough, the birthplace of LSD -- have returned to examining LSD's therapeutic benefits. Recently, Swiss researchers published the results of their government-approved, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study evaluating LSD-assisted psychotherapy as treatment for end-of-life anxiety. The results were overwhelmingly positive: Patients' anxiety levels plummeted following only two LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions, and no adverse effects were recorded beyond temporary and therapeutic moments of distress during the LSD experience.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy has not only proven effective in alleviating terminally ill patients' anxiety, but has also yielded promising results in treating a variety of intractable psychological conditions over the years. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, researchers demonstrated LSD's therapeutic potential in treating crippling conditions such as addiction, depression and anxiety. But the United States criminalized psychedelics in the late 1960s, effectively halting further research exploring psychedelics' medical value.

Recently, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has worked to revive psychedelic research, sponsoring studies across the United States and around the world, including Switzerland's most recent success. Other current MAPS-sponsored studies include evaluating MDMA-assisted therapy as treatment for PTSD, and psilocybin-assisted therapy for nicotine addiction. (Psilocybin is the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms.) Next month, another study will begin assessing MDMA-assisted therapy's ability to reduce social anxiety in adults on the autism spectrum.

How can one or two doses of a psychedelic, coupled with a few sessions of therapy, help such a wide variety of obstinate conditions? And further, how are psychedelics able to help conditions that years of therapy, and daily consumption of prescription medications with dangerous side effects, consistently fail to treat? Stanislov Grof, a leading psychedelic researcher, explained to NPR that psychedelics allow for "a tremendous deepening and acceleration of the psychotherapeutic process, and compared with therapy in general, which mostly focuses on suppression of symptoms, [psychedelic-assisted therapy] ... actually gets to the core of the problems."

Peter, a terminally ill patient who participated in the recent Swiss study, recalled to the New York Times, "The major part was pure distress at all these memories I had successfully forgotten for decades... My LSD experience brought back some lost emotions and ability to trust, lots of psychological insights, and a timeless moment when the universe didn't seem like a trap, but like a revelation of utter beauty."

Psychedelics' efficacy in treating these painful psychological conditions by addressing the root of the patient's struggle, rather than the symptom, challenges many widely held notions both of mental illness and how to best treat suffering individuals. For example, addiction treatment often focuses on changing individual's drug-using behaviors, and identifies the substance-abuse as the illness, rather than as a symptom of an underlying psychological struggle. Similarly, if conditions such as anxiety or depression can be alleviated by an individual addressing the root of his or her struggle, this challenges the conception of anxiety or depression as a potentially arbitrary chemical imbalance that can only be improved by further altering one's brain chemistry with prescription medications on a daily basis.

Not only are psychedelics proving to be dramatically more effective in treating these intractable conditions, but they are also safer and more cost-effective than most current modes of treatment. Patients only require one or two psychedelic doses, and far fewer accompanying therapy sessions. Additionally, while many prescription medications cause an array of dangerous side effects, which often require additional treatment, thus far, no lasting adverse side effects have been recorded from psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Far too many are suffering needlessly. Further research is desperately needed to quell the unbearable pain of hundreds of thousands of individuals, as well as to continue illuminating the mysteries of mental illness and brain function.

This post first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance blog.


Natalie Ginsberg is a policy fellow with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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