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Psychedelics will transform mental healthcare

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Jan 18, 2019
Categories: Health, Science, Society
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Psychedelics will transform mental healthcare

A few weeks ago, I attended a three-day retreat in the Netherlands for my first experience of psilocybin -- the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. The retreat was run by The Psychedelic Society, which is based in the UK, and is perfectly within the law. (We consumed 'magic truffles' -- which are legal in the Netherlands). With the support of the excellent facilitators, I had a profound trip. (Link to The Pschedelic Society: https://psychedelicsociety.org.uk/) I left convinced that psychedelic drugs could be immensely valuable for treating depression, an illness that I have suffered from, provided they are taken in a supportive, therapeutic context. It is also vital to use the insights gained during a trip to take concrete steps to change your life -  a process known as 'integration.' I wrote about my experience for the Financial Times Life & Arts section (Link: https://www.ft.com/content/831cc48c-128a-11e9-a581-4ff78404524e).

Increasing numbers of researchers, psychiatrists and psychotherapists agree that psychedelics could revolutionise psychiatry. In the past few years, there has been a new wave of research into the therapeutic applications of substances such as psilocybin and ketamine (for depression) and MDMA (for post-traumatic stress), known as the 'psychedelic renaissance.' Clinicians began using psychedelics, notably LSD, to treat addiction and other mental health problems in the 60s, but research became much harder to conduct - or went underground - during the 'war on drugs' in the 70s. Research never stopped completely, but now many prestigious institutions, such as Johns Hopkins, and Imperial College London, are at the forefront of a resurgence of psychedelic science. I wrote about a psychologist called Rosalind Watts, among the leading lights of psychedeclic research in the UK, in a story for Ozy. (Link: https://www.ozy.com/rising-stars/do-magic-mushrooms-work-better-than-prozac-she-aims-to-find-out/87165). Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the 'renaissance' believe psychedelics could transform psychiatry as profoundly as the discovery of penicilin changed general medicine in 1928. 

That's because psychedelics - used with the right care and support - can help patients confront the root causes of their depression, trauma, addiction or anxiety. Unlike standard psychiatric medications, which might have to be taken for months or years, psychedelics may only need to be taken once or a few times in a therapeutic context, to help a patient unearth the cause of their illness. Nevertheless, not everyone is convinced. For example, I spoke to Dr William Shanahan, medical director of the Nightingale Hospital, a private mental health clinic in London. He told me: “These drugs can shoot you off the planet,” referring to psilocybin and other psychedelics such as LSD, DMT and ayahuasca. “If you take a mind-altering substance, you shouldn’t be surprised if your mind gets altered in ways you don’t expect.” Certainly, there are people who have had extremely adverse effects from taking psychedelics - and they are definitely not recommended for people with a history of psychosis.

I think that, used carefully, psychedelics can be catalysts for profound change - if people are prepared to do the hard work of using the insights they gain on their trips to change their lives. But I'm keen to hear from people who think I'm getting carried away by psychedelic hype. What do you think?

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