Psychedelics and Mental Health

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What are psychedelics, and how can they help with mental health?

The name psychedelics was coined by Humphrey Osmond in 1957, meaning that they have a mind-manifesting capability, revealing useful or beneficial properties of the mind (3). Indigenous people would agree. They have used psychedelics in their rituals forever. The most common psychedelics are:

  1. Psilocybin mushrooms have been used by the Aztec shaman in a variety of healing and religious rituals (3). Psilocybin is currently the focus of much of the current research and seems to have tremendous potential.
  2. Peyote is a small cactus native to the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Indigenous people use it during rituals (3).
  3. Ayahuasca is made from plants, bark, vines, and leaves. It contains a hallucinogen called DMT. DMT can also be made synthetically. Ayahuasca is used in Brazilian churches and other indigenous cultures (3).
  4.  MDMA is a synthetic psychedelic drug. Before becoming illegal, in the US in  1985, some therapists had been using it in their offices. MDMA appears to be helpful for treating depression and PTSD in conjunction with therapy, and there are several research trials currently being conducted on MDMA.
  5.  LSD  (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a semi-synthetic compound first developed in 1938 by Dr. Albert Hofmann (3).

Little known fact.

Mental disturbances caused by lysergic acid diethylamide were attributed by Woolley and Shaw (1954 )to interference with serotonin's action in the brain, which led to the discovery of the serotonin neurotransmitter system. Thanks, LSD! (3)

Psychedelics in the 50s and 60s

Did you know that the mental health community has known since the 1950's about the benefits of psychedelics? More than a thousand clinical papers discussed 40,000 patients, several dozen books, and six international conferences on psychedelic drug therapy during the '50s and '60s. Many psychiatrists and mental health professionals were interested in it. (3)

In 1970, congress passed the the Controlled Substances Act, which classified LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), mescaline, psilocybin, and marijuana, as Schedule 1 drugs. They carried serious penalties.

That effectively shut all of the use and research of psychedelics for mental health down for quite a while.

The only exception to this was MDMA.

MDMA was discovered and patented in 1912 by Merck but abandoned. It was resynthesized in 1976 by Alexander Shulgin, a chemist in Berkeley, California. Shulgin loved MDMA and shared it with psychotherapist Leo Zeff who also had positive experiences. Instead of retiring like he planned to do, Zeff trained many other therapists in its use. He believed it was a perfect companion for psychotherapy. Unfortunately, MDMA was made illegal in 1985 after kids started to misuse it at raves (2).

Currently, there is significant interest in two of the psychedelics. MDMA and Psilocybin. Prestigious universities such as Yale, NYU, The University of California, and Johns Hopkins are conducting these studies with psychedelics and mental health treatment. Where did all of this interest suddenly come from?

time line 


  • Dr Rick Strassman studies DMT ( the hallucinogen found in ayahuasca) at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, New Mexico. DMT is found in lung tissue as well. His work focused on religious and mystical experiences. You can watch a movie about him and DMT below. 

  •  Around the same time, Franz X. Vollenweider, MD, and colleagues at the       University of Zurich in Switzerland began researching psilocybin and its effects on human behavior.
  • Johns Hopkins University was also studying psilocybin, in Baltimore, Maryland. This is a significant catalyst for the current renaissance in psychedelic research. A Johns Hopkins 2006 double-blind study published in the journal Psychopharmacology demonstrated that psilocybin could give healthy volunteers "experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning."

(4)

MDMA, MAPS, and Rick Doblin

Rick Doblin has dedicated his life to studying psychedelics and mental health because he believed they could heal. In 1986 he started MAPS devoted to proving that psychedelic medicines can alleviate suffering.

MAPS has worked hard to make MDMA medicine, and the studies that they have gotten funded have shown excellent results.


Results of MDMA trials show:

In a 2019 study of people suffering from PTSD 54 percent of the subjects, more than twice as many as in the control group, no longer met the diagnosis for PTSD two months after their final dose of MDMA. Better yet, people kept getting better on their own. A year later, two-thirds of them no longer met the diagnosis for PTSD.


THE FDA has granted MDMA BREAKTHROUGH therapy designation. Most drugs with this designation go on to become approved, and the hope is that the FDA will legalize MDMA by 2023. 

MAPS is so confident that they are currently training therapists in the protocol. 

How does MDMA work?

MDMA improves mood and builds trust between the client and the therapist

MDMA helps the client revisit and work through traumatic memories.

MDMA possibly enhances the release of neurotransmitters and hormones, including :

  • serotonin and dopamine
  • oxytocin 
  • decreasing cortisol 
  • MDMA likely reduces the activity of the amygdala and insula ( implicated in the fear response) 
  • MDMA assists in reprocessing trauma and engaging with therapist 

There is little evidence MDMA is harmful in the amounts that would be necessary to produce therapeutic change.

(2)

ISSUES WITH PSYCHEDELICS AND mENTAL health treatment


Cons of the administration of psychedelics for mental health:

Complicating issues with using psychedelics therapeutically are:

  • Licensing laws
  • Laws about the legalization of drugs vary from country to country and across states
  • Issues with insurance coverage, and 
  • treatment cost. 

(4)

In most, if not all, countries, it is still illegal to use psychedelics other than for research. However, in November of 2020, Oregon became the first US state to legalize psilocybin and the first place in the world to begin laying down a template for how therapeutic use. (4)


Pros of the administration of psychedelics for mental health:

One of the possible benefits of psychedelic drugs is that they may only need to be taken periodically, like vaccines, rather than continuously like antidepressants. Proponents claim fundamental shifts during therapy are made possible, and the drug needs to be taken a handful of times rather than continuously. (4)


psilocybin research AND mENTAL HEALTH


At Johns Hopkins and NYU, psilocybin-assisted therapy has shown promise for the treatment of cancer-related depression and anxiety, tobacco and alcohol addiction, and treatment-resistant depression (1).

A Johns Hopkins study found 71 percent of depressed patients taking psilocybin experienced a "clinically significant response," and 54 percent met the criteria for total "remission of depression. (5)

A **2016 paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, more than 80 percent of patients with a terminal cancer diagnosis experienced a "significant decrease in depressed mood and anxiety" after psilocybin combined with psychotherapy.


And in 2019 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted "breakthrough" status to a company called Compass Pathways to study the use of psilocybin—in conjunction with psychotherapy—for treatment-resistant depression.


Psilocybin results are long-lasting, and although they anticipate booster sessions will be required, researchers are optimistic. 

(1)

Psychedelics and Mental Health References

1.Cormier, Z. (2020, December 01). Psilocybin treatment for mental health gets legal framework. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from 

2. Gunther, M. (n.d.). The Psychedelic Revolution in Mental Health. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2021, 18-25.

3 Nichols D. E. (2016). Psychedelics. Pharmacological reviews, 68(2), 264–355. https://doi.org/10.1124/pr.115.011478

4.  An International Trip: Global Experts Weigh In on Psychedelics - Medscape - Mar 31, 2021.

5.  Davis AK, Barrett FS, May DG, et al. Effects of Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy on Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online November 04, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.3285

6.  Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Carducci, M. A., Umbricht, A., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., Cosimano, M. P., & Klinedinst, M. A. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 30(12), 1181–1197. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116675513

7.  Griffiths RR, Richards WA, McCann U, Jesse R. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2006 Aug;187(3):268-83; discussion 284-92. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5. Epub 2006 Jul 7. PMID: 16826400.

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