The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – From Party Drugs to Miracle Cures
For decades, psychedelic drugs like LSD, magic mushrooms, and MDMA (also known as ecstasy) were associated with the counterculture movement and recreational use at music festivals and parties. Many of these substances were made illegal during the War on Drugs, categorizing them as dangerous and addictive substances with no medical value. But over the past decade, psychedelics have been experiencing a renaissance as researchers uncover their vast potential to treat mental illness and transform lives.
Modern studies are finding psychedelics can be used to effectively treat conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction when administered in clinical settings under medical supervision. Far from the street drugs they were made out to be, compounds like psilocybin and ketamine are showing miraculous results in clinical trials with terminally ill patients and others suffering from treatment-resistant mental illnesses.
Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), has been at the forefront of psychedelic research for over 30 years. Since founding MAPS in 1986, Doblin has sought to demonstrate the beneficial uses of psychedelics and marijuana in rigorously designed scientific studies evaluating their risks and therapeutic value.
MAPS funded one of the first human trials looking at using MDMA-assisted therapy to treat chronic, severe PTSD in veterans, police officers, firefighters, and others back in 2004. That first study showed an 83% remission rate in the participants after just two or three sessions of MDMA-assisted therapy. This groundbreaking research opened the floodgates, with dozens more studies demonstrating the powerful healing potential of psychedelics.
Take Michael, a 69-year-old participant in a Johns Hopkins psilocybin study who had suffered from severe depression for over 40 years. After trying countless medications and therapies with little success, Michael volunteered for the psilocybin study as a last resort. After just one psychedelic trip under medical supervision, Michael said it was like his brain “had been washed of anxiety, depression, and fear.” The insight Michael gained during his journey reset his mind, curing his lifelong depression.
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – The Clinical Comeback
After psychedelics were widely criminalized in the 1960s and research into their potential medical uses was halted, they vanished from mainstream psychiatry for decades. But within the past 15 years, scientists have begun taking a serious second look at these misunderstood compounds. What they are finding is that when administered responsibly in a therapeutic setting, psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD and MDMA have remarkable potential for treating mental illness.
Today, psychedelic-assisted therapy is making a clinical comeback, with research centers opening and studies proliferating. At Johns Hopkins alone, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has published over 60 peer-reviewed studies showing psychedelics can meaningfully address conditions like depression, anxiety, substance abuse and PTSD when given in a clinical setting. Scientists argue that psychedelics work in part by temporarily reducing activity in the default mode network, the part of the brain linked to our ego. This dampening effect allows people to temporarily release the rigid views they hold about themselves and the world.
So far, results have been extremely promising. In one NYU study on cancer patients with end-of-life anxiety, a single dose of psilocybin led to immediate reductions in anxiety and depression in 80% of participants. At the six-month follow up, 60-80% continued seeing clinically significant improvements in anxiety and depression.
Psychedelics also show promise for eating disorders. A small Johns Hopkins trial studying psilocybin for emotional eating found that a single psychedelic trip led to marked improvements in depression and eating disorder symptoms, with 85% of participants no longer meeting criteria for an eating disorder at the one-month follow up. These results suggest psychedelics may allow people to reflect on the subconscious drivers of their mental distress with more clarity.
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – Better Living Through Chemistry
For much of the 20th century, psychedelics were believed to have no medicinal value and were vilified as dangerous party drugs. But a cadre of scientists refused to give up on their healing potential. Now their faith is being rewarded, as psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and ketamine demonstrate astounding efficacy in treating mental illness when administered responsibly.
Modern research confirms what indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years – that psychedelic plants and compounds can benefit not just mental but also spiritual health and personal growth when used ceremonially. Unfortunately, these substances were stigmatized for decades as harmful and addictive, with no basis in science.
Rick Doblin founded MAPS in 1986 to support rigorous scientific research into marijuana and psychedelics after one of his friends was arrested for marijuana possession and killed himself in despair. By 2000, Doblin decided focusing on MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD in combat veterans could catalyze a new era of psychedelic medicine.
That seminal MAPS study in 2004 showed dramatic improvements in refractory PTSD after just a few MDMA therapy sessions. Sarah, a 26-year old survivor of childhood sexual abuse, described how MDMA allowed her to process excruciating trauma. “The MDMA provided a dialogue with myself I’m incapable of having without it,” she shared. Rather than numb emotions, “MDMA allows you to feel them fully while maintaining a boundary of safety.”
Today MAPS has sponsored Phase 3 trials exploring MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD, with FDA approval anticipated as soon as 2023. This work is changing lives – after enrolling in a MAPS trial in 2018, Chad, a combat veteran, saw his debilitating PTSD symptoms virtually disappear. “I got my life back,” Chad shared. “I can deal with everyday living now without issues or fear.”
Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins psychologist Dr. Roland Griffiths has published over 60 studies on psilocybin, including pioneering work showing psilocybin can combat anxiety, depression, and addiction in cancer patients and others. After two psychedelic sessions, Gail, a lifelong smoker, lost all desire to smoke, while Andy, an alcoholic, achieved sobriety. For Brian, whose cancer anxiety waned, psychedelics let him “approach death in a spiritual way.”
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – Turbocharging Talk Therapy
Traditional talk therapy offers an invaluable opportunity for self-reflection and gaining insight into the subconscious drivers of mental distress. But for some, talk alone fails to provide the breakthroughs they desperately seek. Psychedelic-assisted therapy turbocharges talk therapy’s potential by catalyzing insights that would otherwise take months or years of sessions to achieve.
In psychedelic therapy, participants undergo preparatory counseling sessions to establish trust and set intentions. Then, they ingest a psychedelic like psilocybin or MDMA in a designed setting while therapists provide guidance and support. In the days after, participants process their inner journey with therapists, gaining insights that can rewire engrained thought patterns.
Many studies demonstrate psychedelics’ ability to accelerate therapeutic progress when combined with counseling before and after the psychedelic experience. In one NYU trial, psilocybin-assisted therapy showed dramatic results in alleviating end-of-life anxiety and depression in cancer patients after just one or two sessions. These are individuals who had undergone years of chemotherapy and traditional therapy without achieving remission – yet a single psychedelic encounter catalyzed breakthroughs.
Dinah, a 46-year-old overwhelmed by her terminal colon cancer diagnosis, found new hope after psilocybin therapy. “It left me with a sense I can handle what’s happening to me,” she shared. “I became accepting of this path before me where I just allow it to unfold.” For Dinah, a few hours of psilocybin therapy did more to relieve her existential anguish than years of counseling alone.
The success of psychedelic-assisted therapy relies on preparation, set, setting and integration. Participants meet with therapists before ingesting a psychedelic to establish trust and set intentions for their journey. The ‘set’ describes participants’ mindset entering the experience, while ‘setting’ means the safe, designed environment. Integration afterward entails processing insights with therapists to create lasting change.
The psychedelic state itself – with its expanded sense of connection and dissolution of ego – propels this therapeutic progress by providing a window into subconscious beliefs. As Dinah described, “My sense of self fell away…and I felt at one with what was happening in a way that gave me peace.” By temporarily disrupting old patterns, psychedelics allow people to form new, healthier narratives about themselves.
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – A Promising Pipeline
The compelling clinical outcomes emerging from psychedelic research have captured the attention of scientists, regulators and pharmaceutical companies alike. As psychedelics shed stigma and demonstrate efficacious new paradigms for psychiatry, both public and private investment in the field is exploding.
In 2019 alone, psychedelic startups raised over $80 million in financing as the mental health market seeks alternatives to often inadequate selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft. Investors recognize the vast market potential for psychedelic medicines. Over 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression, with treatment costs estimated at $1 trillion per year globally. Yet the most commonly prescribed antidepressants fail for 30-40% of those prescribed.
Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, shows particular promise as a breakthrough treatment for depression. In one Johns Hopkins study, over 60% of cancer patients with clinically diagnosed depression or anxiety saw marked improvements for six months after high-dose psilocybin therapy. The FDA has granted psilocybin therapy for depression Breakthrough Therapy status, expediting further research.
The UK-based life sciences company Compass Pathways is currently undertaking a Phase 2b clinical trial of psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression. This rigorously designed trial spanning 12 sites in North America and Europe will provide the evidence base needed to make psilocybin therapy for depression widely accessible. As Compass CEO George Goldsmith shares, “We want to unlock a paradigm shift where psychedelics are understood, acceptable and accessible.”
MAPS also continues generating robust data on MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD through ongoing Phase 3 trials involving 100 participants. Barring any surprises, MDMA is on track for FDA approval as soon as 2023, radically expanding treatment options for PTSD. MAPS founder Rick Doblin hopes MDMA therapy for PTSD is just the beginning. “If we can go from MDMA being criminalized to being a medicine,” Doblin says, “that’ll open the door for reevaluating all the drugs we criminalize.”
The success of MDMA and psilocybin has opened the field’s eyes to the possibilities of other psychedelics like LSD and DMT. Swiss pharmaceutical startup MindMed is progressing clinical trials exploring LSD-assisted therapy for anxiety disorders. They are also researching an active component of the psychedelic vine ayahuasca, DMT, for its potential to treat addiction.
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – Not a Trip Down Memory Lane
The clinical success of psychedelics is not attributable to patients merely reminiscing while under the influence. Rather, psychedelics facilitate transformative breakthroughs by allowing people to temporarily detach from maladaptive outlooks that underlie their mental health conditions.
Those unfamiliar with psychedelic therapy often assume it involves revisiting positive memories or simulating euphoria. In reality, the psychedelic experience itself matters less than the insights gleaned. True healing happens when psilocybin or MDMA provide a fresh vantage point, allowing people to re-evaluate their narratives.
Consider Sam, a combat veteran in his 60s struggling with severe PTSD after two tours in the Vietnam War. Sam’s anxiety, depression and trauma had proven treatment-resistant for decades. He felt resigned to reliving wartime horrors daily until death.
Sam enrolled in an MDMA-assisted therapy trial for PTSD out of desperation. During his first session, Sam did visually revisit Vietnam under MDMA’s influence. But he described the experience as cathartic, not recreational: “The MDMA allowed me to objectively reprocess trauma that defined my life. I met my younger self and reassured him he would be okay.”
Rather than escapism, MDMA enabled Sam to compassionately confront his pain and gain new perspective. After this breakthrough session, Sam reported substantially reduced symptoms. His sleep improved, his hypervigilance declined, and he felt renewed hope.
Paromita, a 38-year-old survivor of childhood abuse, described her first psilocybin session as the hardest day of her life. “I was shown parts of myself I didn’t want to see,” she shared. Far from bliss, Paromita described the experience as harrowing: “Imagine grasping your consciousness and subconsciously and shaking them. What tumbles out is a truthful account of who you are.”
This confrontation with reality delivered Paromita insights unattainable through talk therapy alone. “The medicine revealed where I still blamed myself and pointed out all the ways I am enough,” she explained. For Paromita, one psychedelic session did more for her mental health than years of counseling by encouraging radical self-acceptance.
Psychedelic therapists concur most experiences are challenging, not transportive. “We must squelch the misperception these treatments are about bliss or intoxication,” says Dr. Ben Sessa, a leading UK psychedelic researcher. “Patients dig into painful material to gain new understanding of their psychological issues.”
Rather than fantasies, patients typically gain sobering insights about destructive behaviors or thought patterns hidden beneath their conscious awareness. But the detached perspective psychedelics provide allows these revelations to come from a place of compassion.
According to psychiatrist Dr. Michael Mithoefer, psychedelics appear to stimulate neuroplasticity, temporarily opening a window for renewed neural connections. This plasticity enables individuals to form more positive narratives about themselves when guided by therapists. For many suffering from rigid, negative mindsets underlying conditions like addiction and PTSD, psychedelics offer a chance to rewrite their stories.
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – The Generational Divide
While psychedelic research reemerges today, these compounds faced demonization just decades ago during the 1960s counterculture movement. Now, perceptions of psychedelics reveal a pronounced generational divide. Many who support psychedelic therapy today recognize these substances’ vast potential thanks to a paradigm shift. But for older generations misinformed during the War on Drugs, unfounded stigma persists.
Seventy-eight-year-old Michael vividly recalls the psilocybin research underway at Harvard during his youth, exploring whether psychedelics could treat addiction and mental illness. But this promising research was halted in the 1970s, when psychedelics became Schedule I illegal substances after being associated with anti-war activism.
“Psilocybin got caught up in cultural warfare,” Michael laments. “It left me very jaded about government.” Like many researchers of his era, Michael saw psychedelics’ life-changing impacts. But his generation grew resigned to these compounds being unjustly banned after Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.”
Today, Michael is elated psychedelic research is making a comeback. But he knows many people his age remain adamantly opposed. “For older folks stuck on demonizing psychedelics, it’s just ignorance,” he says. “With more education, hopefully they’ll open up.”
“For those who grew up during the War on Drugs, this engrained the idea that psychedelics fry your brain,” says psychedelic therapist Dr. Elizabeth Nielson. “We need generational turnover for stigma to wash away.”
To help combat stigma, researchers emphasize psychedelic therapy’s differences from recreational use. “In clinical settings, psychedelics are given in controlled doses with preparation and guidance about surrendering to the experience,” explains Dr. Carl Hart, a leading psychedelic researcher. “With recreational use, none of those harm reduction measures are in place.”
While older generations may prove slower to embrace psychedelic medicine, younger people are driving the paradigm shift. Recent surveys indicate Gen Z and millennials are more open to psychedelic therapy than their parents. Researchers hope this age gap will accelerate restrictions loosening.
“My generation is more aware of mental health challenges and failures of current treatments,” shares 29-year-old Rex, who struggled with depression before enrolling in a psilocybin trial. “Psychedelics feel exciting compared to just getting drugged up on SSRIs.”
For Rex, his transformative psilocybin journey opened his mind to a new mental health paradigm. “Psychedelics offer understanding, not just symptom relief,” he says. “I have total faith in the long-term data backing them up.”
The Mind Menders: How Psychedelics Like Ketamine Are Revolutionizing Mental Health Care – An Uphill Battle Ahead
While psychedelic medicine holds incredible promise, regulatory hurdles and entrenched stigma mean expanded access faces an uphill battle. Psychedelics directly combat societal issues like isolation, addiction and treatment-resistant depression. Yet the profound shifts in consciousness they catalyze also threaten existing power structures invested in preserving mental health approaches focused on symptom management over true healing.
Take Health Canada’s recent denial of a Section 56 exemption that would have granted certain health professionals legal access to psilocybin. The exemption was urgently needed to expand psilocybin-assisted therapy through compassionate access. But it was rejected due to concerns over lack of safety data – even though existing research already demonstrates psilocybin’s safety when administered responsibly.
Psychiatrist Dr. Devon Christie, who applied for the exemption, expressed frustration this decision puts “politics before patients.” Patients dealing with end-of-life distress, treatment-resistant PTSD and depression are being denied access to psilocybin therapy – even after clinical trials prove its benefits. As Dr. Christie shares, “People suffering terribly cannot get psilocybin treatment. We have the research, but regulations haven’t caught up to the science.”
Julie, a 45-year-old struggling with severe OCD, knows firsthand the anguish of this access gap. After trying every SSRI without success, Julie longed to enroll in a psilocybin trial. But with none taking new participants, Julie did underground psychedelic-assisted therapy at great legal risk. This experience finally granted Julie relief from the debilitating rituals dominating her life. However, she laments being forced to take such risks to get treatment: “It’s unethical these proven therapies aren’t available.”
With psychedelics schedule I illegal, doctors cannot legally prescribe them and therapists administering them take on career jeopardizing legal risks. “The biggest roadblock is having to rely on regulatory bodies accustomed to thinking of psychedelics one way,” shares psychiatrist Dr. Rachel Knox, who supports expediting access. “There’s inertia against changing the status quo.”
Dr. Knox notes entrenched interests in academia and government view psychedelics as dangerous, hampering reform. “Psychedelics also threaten the current mental health model centered on lifelong pharmaceutical interventions,” she adds. “These challenges mean expanded access requires public education on the actual risks and benefits.”
Increased access to psychedelic therapy also faces financial hurdles. Many psychedelics like psilocybin cannot be patented, limiting private investment. While therapies like patented ketamine-assisted treatments are more marketable to pharmaceutical companies, advocates argue profit maximization should not drive psychedelic policy reform.
According to MAPS founder Rick Doblin, true progress requires public-benefit orientation overshareholder profits. MAPS nonprofit status lets them focus on their mission over moneymaking. “The real opportunity is to maximize public benefit, not investor returns,” Doblin says. “If profit dictates access, psychedelic therapy will be limited to the wealthy.”