Psychedelics: The Future of Mental Health Treatment

Daniel Nesbitt ’22

Opinion Editor

As many of us are aware, there is currently a mental health crisis in our generation. Across almost all demographic measures, rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are increasing at an alarming pace. While there are a myriad of ways to go about addressing this problem, one of the most effective and promising possible remedies is psychedelics.

Unfortunately, in the late 1960s, the FDA developed extremely strict regulations, hampering research for decades to come. Currently, there are many psychedelics classified as Schedule I controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act of 1971. Some examples include DMT (sometimes referred to as ayahuasca), ibogaine, LSD, MDMA (“ecstasy”), mescaline, and psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), as well as derivatives and analogues of these substances. In recent years, however, more researchers have begun to explore the effects of psychedelic treatment on anxiety and depression, in addition to substance abuse. One of the most promising psychedelics so far is psilocybin. While the volume of literature is still relatively small due to the illegality of the drug itself, study after study has found promising results. For example, a 2016 study of cancer patients found that five weeks after taking a high dose of psilocybin, patients showed statistically significant improvements on a number of medical depression/anxiety scales.

Furthermore, six months after a high dose of psilocybin, around 60% of patients were no longer clinically depressed or anxious, and 80% experienced reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. These findings are simply astonishing, indicating that psilocybin could be more effective than typical SSRIs like Zoloft or Prozac, but without the common major adverse side effects. In addition, there have been some studies indicating that psilocybin, in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, helps with smoking cessation and alcohol dependency. It is important to note that more studies must be conducted before definitive conclusions can be drawn as there are very few studies so far, and all have relatively small sample sizes.

While psilocybin currently has the largest body of research among psychedelics, there are others that show great promise as well, namely DMT (ayahuasca) and LSD. For the treatment of depression and anxiety, the literature, though limited at this point, indicates that both drugs could help produce positive outcomes, much like psilocybin. One LSD study found that participants, even a year after treatment, showed greatly decreased anxiety levels. Further, a recent meta-analysis of studies measuring LSD’s effect on alcohol dependency found that LSD nearly doubled the chances of a positive outcome. One 2016 study of patients with major depressive disorder found that treatment of DMT led to, on average, a 50% reduction in symptoms.

Another psychedelic worth mentioning is ibogaine. Most of the research on this psychotropic has focused on its potential role in combatting opioid addiction, a crucial field given the current opioid crisis. Multiple studies have found that ibogaine is an effective treatment for opioid dependence, particularly with heroin, and could perhaps be another alternative to methadone. Furthermore, a 2018 study found that “ibogaine was associated with substantive effects on opioid withdrawal symptoms and drug use in subject for whom other treatments had been unsuccessful.” Despite these enormously positive effects, ibogaine remains a Schedule I drug under federal law.
Psychedelic drugs have enormous potential for combatting mental illness and addiction, however drug prohibition has impeded these great scientific discoveries. What sets psychedelics apart is that there is very little risk for addiction and negative long-term effects. Through the continuation of prohibition, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, are unable to seek promising treatment options. This is why we must end the drug prohibition entirely.