A Psychedelic Cure for Depression?
Imagine this: you’re depressed. Yes, I know that’s not something any of us want to imagine, but bear with me. You visit a psychiatrist, and instead of the usual “Try this pill for two months and see if you feel better” spiel something completely different happens. You’re not just handed a prescription and left to sink or swim on your own. In fact, you’re not handed a prescription at all. Instead you’re scheduled an all-day appointment for the next week. And when you show up, it’s like no other experience you’ve ever had.
You enter a room that’s furnished like a comfortable living room. It’s cozy. The furniture is homey and inviting. The lighting is muted and the colors are warm and soothing. There are interesting objects d’art in strategic places, many of which have some spiritual connotation. Restful ambient music plays softly in the background. You’re invited to sit down and relax.
You have a pleasant chat with the therapist, who then gives you a pill to take. You put on a soft sleep mask and are invited to relax on the exquisitely comfortable sofa. Then begins what you will come to describe as one of the most profound experiences of your life.
Later you will tell people that it seemed to last for days, but in fact only hours pass. You come away from it a changed person—changed for the better. You feel you have a purpose in life. You feel that the true meaning of your life has been revealed to you. You may even feel like you have come into direct contact with the divine. And one thing is for sure: nothing will ever be quite the same.
When you finally leave your appointment—after another chat and even a snack—the psychiatrist shakes your hand and tells you to touch base with him in three months and let him know how you’re feeling.
He doesn’t give you a prescription.
You’re no longer depressed. More surprisingly, three months later you’re still not depressed. And during the months after that, on the rare occasions when you do feel depression creeping back up on you, simply calling up the memory of your experience in the psychiatrist’s office will usually banish it. What happened in there?
The pill you were given contained psilocybin, the active compound in so-called “magic mushrooms.” That’s right. The old hippy drug, whose effects are similar to those of LSD. In effect, you just took an acid trip.
Is this the future of psychiatric treatment?
Here’s why we’re not already prescribing these drugs
You may not realize it, but the idea of using “magic mushrooms” and other psychedelic drugs for fun is a very modern thing.
Historically, natural psychedelics like magic mushrooms and peyote were used by shamans—the tribal “medicine men” of the pre-scientific age. And they weren’t used lightly. Rather, they were used in religious or healing ceremonies, not for recreation. Even LSD wasn’t cooked up by some mad-hippie chemist looking for a new way to get high. It was created quite by accident, by a researcher at a pharmaceutical firm clear back in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the second half of the chaos of the 1960s and 70s that we saw “recreational” use of any of these drugs.
And here’s something else you probably don’t know: psychiatrists were once very, very excited about LSD. Between 1950 and 1963, there were dozens of serious scientific studies of it. Psychiatrists had high hopes for LSD and a host of mental disorders from schizophrenia to depression. Researchers even found it could be used to cure alcoholism. Then two things happened: MKULTRA, and the counterculture movement of the 60s.
MKULTRA, for those of you who don’t know, was a program run by the CIA and focused on mind control.
This out-of-control alphabet agency ran completely unethical experiments, using people without their consent or even knowledge. They were experiments in the truest sense of the word—without boundaries, controls, or even any real scientific input. Accidents happened. People died. Congress got involved and shut the program down—and became very nervous about LSD and other psychedelics. At the same time, the acid-fueled hippie movement was shaking up the status quo.
It was the perfect storm. LSD was made illegal, and all research on hallucinogenic drugs for medical purposes ground to a halt. All the promising studies that had been done were put on the shelf to gather dust.
And there they stayed…till now.
Will the mental health moguls allow this treatment to happen?
As more and more states legalize medical marijuana, the so-called “war on drugs” appears to be subsiding into minor skirmishes. The political climate has changed, and scientists are now able to dust off some of those old studies that were abandoned back in the 60s and 70s. Today, the research is focusing primarily on psilocybin, but scientists are taking a second look at other psychedelics like LSD and MDMA (Ecstasy) too.
And the results should scare Big Pharma to death.
A 2006 study found that psilocybin successful treated obsessive-compulsive disorder. A 2012 study showed that MDMA used along with psychotherapy worked for PTSD. A 2012 study showed that LSD eliminated terminal cancer patients’ anxiety and fear of death. And the most recent research, focused on psilocybin and depression, finds that the drug is extremely effective—and long-lasting.
A study from the Imperial College London tested the drug on a group of people who had been fighting “treatment-resistant” depression for an average of eighteen years. The drug—unlike conventional drugs, which can take weeks or even months to work—had an immediate effect. All showed improvement. Three-quarters of the study participants were completely depression-free for at least a week after taking the drug, and half were still not depressed after an entire three months.
That blows every conventional treatment out of the water. Antidepressants are only fractionally more effective than a placebo—33% versus 31%—and they must be taken daily. The psilocybin was 75% effective and lasted at least a week.
That’s pretty darn impressive. But will we ever see it hit the market as a treatment?
It remains to be seen. Antidepressants are a huge money-maker for Big Pharma, and anything that cuts into their bottom line—like a drug that really works, and that you take once a week…or only once—is going to meet serious opposition. On the other hand, on the other side of the pond government-run healthcare programs are refusing to pay for drugs that don’t show a serious cost-benefit ratio. Hopefully this pushes us toward more treatments that actually work.
In any case, the mere fact that these studies are being allowed at all is heartening. In a field where there are few real treatments, anything that shows real potential is a light at the end of the tunnel.
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