In March 2017, the World Health Organization declared that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. More than 300 million people are living with it, an increase of more than 18 per cent between 2005 and 2015. But help is at hand – if we can reach out and grasp it.
A group of drugs long considered taboo is poised to transform the way we treat mental health. Recent research suggests that psychedelics – once regarded as a relic of the hippy-dippy 60s – could prove powerful tools not only to treat, but also potentially cure, many mental health problems regarded as chronic.
The brain on DMT: mapping the psychedelic drug’s effects
Psychedelics do something that our current go-to psychiatric drugs cannot: transform hardwired neural patterns to reroute the very architecture of the brain, sometimes in a single dose. Roland Griffiths, a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, has likened psychedelics’ ability to bring about neural rerouting as akin to a “surgical intervention”.
Take psilocybin, better known as magic mushrooms. A single dose of the drug can do “in 30 seconds what it takes antidepressants three to four weeks to do”, according to David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.
A study published in the Journal of Psycho-pharmacology on people with anxiety associated with life-threatening illness suggested that LSD-assisted psychotherapy was successful in almost 70 per cent of subjects, with the positive effects lasting more than a year and causing no lasting adverse reactions.
Given the overwhelmingly positive results of these and other trials, one would think the clinical use of psychedelics would represent a sea change in our approach to mental-health treatment. But, sadly, outdated societal prejudice against psychedelics is proving a formidable handicap, hampering research and keeping many in need from reaping the benefits.
Strict anti-drug legislation that still criminalises the use of such substances has pushed psychedelic-assisted treatments underground: unless you are among the lucky few accepted into a clinical trial, your only options are to find an unlicensed practitioner, attempt to do it yourself illegally or travel to places where the compounds are legal.
Growing numbers of people are doing just that, and in recent months, there has been flurry of articles on the topic which have stoked curiosity about the potential of psychedelics. In April of this year, the Psychedelic Science Conference in California was attended by more than 3,000 people who travelled from across the globe to learn about recent advances. Although it’s heartening that more people are finding relief, ad hoc experimentation is not the way to go. We must bring this research into the mainstream, guarantee adequate funding and shield well-intentioned facilitators from criminal prosecution.
I should know. I was once the victim of a violent robbery, which left me shattered. Out of desperation I turned to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. It helped saved my life.
Mental-health practices around the world are in desperate need of an overhaul, and psychedelics could be just the hack we need to achieve such fundamental – and indispensable – change. I believe mental health to be a human right, and as such it is nothing short of our duty to follow, and fund, the science.