Psychedelics. It is a bit of a buzzword, with most people’s first thoughts trending towards a 1960s flower child or the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”. While psychedelic drugs had their defining moment in that era, they are finding a new wave of influence in recent years surrounding the possibilities they provide to assist in interventions for treatment-resistant mental health conditions.
In some ways, this is not a new revelation in science. It is important to recognize that research in this area of study owes a great deal of success to a long, elaborate history of Indigenous healing practices around the world—many of whom faced prejudice and persecution for these traditions.
With new research in the area of psychedelic medicine, as with many new frontiers, pioneers in this intervention may never receive acknowledgement for their contributions—and it is unlikely that many minority groups whose livelihoods and traditions built the foundation for Western research into this subject will become the face of these interventions as knowledge and application of these methods become more widely spread.
Having acknowledged the roots of this new framework, let us explore the results of new research—which is both exciting and provides a potential opportunity for individuals who struggle with symptom management through current medication/therapeutic strategies.
Recent clinical trials have shown significant associations between the use of psychedelic drug use and mental health benefits occurring in physical trials. Additionally, survey-based studies are showing a link between behavioral benefits and outcomes for individuals utilizing psychedelics in current naturalistic/recreational use.
Through these scientific studies and in research surrounding psychedelic drug use—people are experiencing significant improvement in anxious/depressive symptoms and overall emotional well-being. Use of psychedelics has shown specific benefits to individuals struggling with anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD. Additionally, these benefits appeared to increase in efficiency with an increase in exposure to these medications (up to a point). There also did not appear to be a difference of impact based on the type of psychedelic used (Raison et al. 2022).
Of course, any drug use does still present some level of risk. Thirteen percent of a survey sample indicated at least one negative effect associated with use and a decreased impact in the effect on their symptoms. Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs under the umbrella of psychedelics also have the potential to activate the body’s fight or flight response—leading to increase in blood pressure, heart rate, sweating, etc.
“Bad trips” can have severe consequences for individuals who may not be able to handle this stress response. Although rare, psychedelics also have the potential to lead to persistent psychosis beyond the drugs initial effects and a condition known as Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) that involve involuntary recurrences of the drug experiences in the form of flashbacks (NIDA 2021).
All of this also does not include the fact that currently, only five out of the fifty states in the U.S. have any level of decriminalization of psychedelic drugs. On a federal level, use of any psychedelic drugs is illegal outside of religious exemption. Many are classified as Schedule I narcotics—on par with, and treated with the same level of conviction, as heroin (Psychedelic Invest 2022).
So, while research is showing some efficacy in the use of these drugs for mental health treatment, the likelihood that you will be able to get a prescription from your general practitioner for their use in even the next decade or so is slim. It is important to recognize and remember that these effects are studied solely through the discretionary implementation of clinical trials—trials which will require continued repetition, research, and clearing of red tape to determine the short-term (and long-term) impact of these drugs on individuals’ overall health and well-being.
Overall, these research findings are exciting and have the potential to lead to a widespread impact on how we approach mental health treatment and incorporate more Indigenous practice methodology into modern, Western medical practice. However, time will tell if the potential benefits of these medications are worth the risk and side effects that can arise from their use.
“Effects of Naturalistic Psychedelic Use on Depression, Anxiety, and Well-Being: Associations With Patterns of Use, Reported Harms, and Transformative Mental States” (2022) by Charles L. Raison, Rakesh Jain, Andrew D. Penn, Steven P. Cole, and Saundra Jain
Front. Psychiatry, 15 March 2022
“Hallucinogens: Drug Facts” (2021) National Institute on Drug Abuse
“The Complete Guide to Psychedelic Legalization” (2022) Psychedelic Invest