Although antidepressants do relieve symptoms for a number of people, the 10% to 30% of people who do not respond understandably hope for another solution. The scientific community is taking a closer look at the use of psychedelics in treating depression along with other mental health disorders. Recent studies do show promise for individuals where conventional treatment has failed.
Psychedelics drugs were used in the 1950s and 1960s before concerns were raised about the potential for abuse and in 1968, they were designated as illegal. For obvious reasons, psychedelics were associated more with hippies than researchers since the goal of using them was to “treat” oneself by checking out for a while.
Classification of psychedelics as banned substances, with the exception of ketamine, put the brakes on research. Ketamine is still a legally available psychedelic that can be obtained with a prescription from a medical doctor and is a promising pharmaceutical for treating depression. It works quicker than traditional antidepressants and can be used for major depression or suicidal episodes. And the opportunity is there to continuing explore use of other - currently illegal - drugs.
In the mid-2000s, John Hopkins University showed renewed interested in using the banned psychedelics for treatment. A paper in Scientific Reports notes that psilocybin, similar to LSD but without the controversy, can reset depressed brains and help those who have not benefited from conventional treatment.
In a Ted Talk, one of the researchers with Imperial College London quoted a patient’s experience as follows: “the usual negative self-narration that I have had vanished completely. It was replaced by a sense of beautiful chaos, a landscape of unimaginable colour and beauty. I began to see that all of my concerns about daily living weren’t relevant, that they were a result of a negative spiral. I also felt like I was learning without being taught that intuition was being fed. Fleeting feelings from my past came back, memories too, both of which had seemed long-forgotten. I also feel as if I’ve seen a much clearer picture. Another side to this is that I feel like I’ve had a second chance, like a survivor. I can enjoy things now the way I used to without the cynicism, without the oppression. At its most basic I feel like I used to before the depression.”
Imperial College London is continuing research on the use of psychedelics with clinical trials to see if they can help with depression when compared to standard drugs, such as an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) antidepressant, known by as Lexapro. This is an advance over past research that looked at psychedelic use in a vacuum, not accounting for the placebo effect.
Ayahuasca, another psychedelic, is used by the indigenous population in the Amazon basin for both spiritual and healing reasons. The drug is created by mixing two different plants, one of which includes a monoamine oxidase inhibitor already used in some cases of depression.
In the past, studies examined the use of Ayahuasca, but without comparing it to a placebo group. With any drug, psychedelic or otherwise, solid research includes a control group to draw more accurate conclusions from the research. When Ayahuasca was compared to a placebo, a researcher noted “We observed significant antidepressant effects of Ayahuasca when compared with placebo at all time points." Since this study was done on a small group, additional research is needed.
Even with promising research, there are still concerns about using psychedelics for mental health treatment. Experiencing a loss of control while under the influence could make any feelings of anxiety worse for some patients or result in psychotic symptoms. In the Ayahuasca study mentioned above, some patients actually reported more psychological distress which is alarming. There are also limitations to how it can help people without continued use.
Continued research with controlled studies that account for the placebo effect are expected to take years due to the stringent requirements for getting these drugs approved for legal use. But the potential of additional treatment options for people who do not recover with traditional methods is encouraging. No one treatment is helpful for all psychiatric symptoms which is why scientific research in all areas can open new doors to recovery.