Does psychedelic psychotherapy really work?
There is a revival in research associated with the medical use of psychedelic substances (together with psychotherapy) in the treatment of common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addictions. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in the US has been at the forefront of this pioneering work for many years, as well as organizations in the UK such as the Beckley Foundation.
Because psychedelics like MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms have been classified as dangerous drugs with no medical benefit, it has been extremely hard for researchers to get approval for examining the potential benefits of these substances. So why have these substances been classified as dangerous if there are potential health benefits? A lot of the initial resistance to studying them seems to be political.
In the early 70s, then US president Richard Nixon made it his goal to eliminate political dissenters to the Vietnam War, but because this was such a large group of people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds, the easiest way to target them was to go after the substances they were using such as LSD and cannabis. The war on drugs was born.
At the same time, the general public still knew very little about psychedelics, and neuroscience was in its infancy. What people did know was usually through sensationalized media stories, government anti-drug campaigns, and movie depictions of social drop-outs (e.g. Easy Rider). What they didn’t know was that serious research was being conducted on the potential benefits of these substances, and that they were being used for medical purposes.
Once these substances hit the street though, it became impossible to control the purity and dosages—never mind medical use. Also, the set (the user’s mindset at the time, e.g. therapeutic intent) and setting (e.g. a psychotherapist’s office vs. a noisy party) for taking the substances was ignored. Without considering these important factors, the potential medical benefits are significantly reduced.
In terms of negative effects, the current research shows that psychedelics carry significantly lower risks of negative health consequences compared to legal substances such as alcohol or tobacco—both of which can be lethal. Also, psychedelics appear to have almost no addictive qualities, which cannot be said for many other legal drugs such as tobacco, or prescribed opioids. Nevertheless, psychedelics need to be treated with care.
So the question remains, can psychedelics be used to treat common mental health problems? If we give researchers such as MAPS and the Beckley Foundation the resources to explore these substances, we just might find out. The research so far seems to be promising. We should use all available resources to help those suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD and addictions—rather than letting bias and past hysteria distract us from the potential benefits of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.