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The Value of Psychedelics in Mental Health Care

Jan 17, 2024 | Your Health

In the past, “psychedelics” was a bit of a taboo subject. This class of drugs was considered off-limits from a medical perspective. Today, attitudes are shifting surrounding the use of psychedelics in mental health care.

Beverly Fergus, Master’s degree student at the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy, shares helpful information surrounding the use of psychedelics in modern medicine.

The American Mental Health Crisis

One driving factor in psychedelic medication applications applies to veterans who have served in some capacity on behalf of the U.S. military. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. military has lost 7,000 people to operations since 9/11. During that same time, 32,000 have committed suicide—more than four times the amount lost in military operations.

“The public doesn’t know about this military epidemic. But, since the pandemic, we have all understood there is a real need for new mental health modalities,” states Fergus. “In the last 50 years, mental health care has been underwhelming. Therapy and the use of SSRIs has really not been completely effective. In fact, 30% of people who are using antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication really don’t feel like they’re getting the help that they need.”

History of Psychedelic Research

In the 1950s and 1960s, promising research emerged for mental health care with the use of psychedelics. There were potential treatments for alcoholism, schizophrenia, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and other conditions. Then, in 1970, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. All drugs were assigned a category between schedule I and V, and all psychedelics were designated as schedule I drugs, which meant that they were toxic, had a high potential for abuse, and had no medical advantage.

“Basically, it became a research desert. Nobody studied psychedelics for the last 50 years, because they couldn’t get the materials to do the research,” notes Fergus. “If you wanted to study psychedelics, it would take 10 years to get approval. You would have to spend tens of millions of dollars for these research facilities.”

Today, things are changing. Congress designated MDMA, commonly known as molly and ecstasy, and psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) as breakthrough therapies, which means they have more potential for helping certain conditions than what was currently available. Since that happened, research has started again. “Right now, there are 370 clinical research studies being done on psychedelics,” adds Fergus.

Psychedelics in Action

Currently, some military support groups are sending vets for treatments in countries like Jamaica and Mexico, where psychedelics are legal. These individuals travel for a four-day treatment, where they undergo two “journeys.” This involves going through a four- to six-hour treatment with one of the psychedelic drugs. Facilitators monitor the process and help individuals work through certain issues.

“A lot of times when vets go through this treatment, their PTSD symptoms will be gone. After 10 or 12 years of therapy and trying to find answers, they can go through one four- to six-hour treatment and oftentimes leave symptom-free from their depression or PTSD. It really is incredible,” shares Fergus.

Legalization Challenges

Now that the U.S. is grappling with legalization and medicalization of these psychedelics, it will be a complicated process as the FDA, pharmaceutical companies, and the government all get involved. For example, the FDA currently wants two facilitators in the room as a person goes through a treatment, which could become cost prohibitive for mental health providers. The other question is what credentialing will look like for the facilitators. Still, Fergus is optimistic about the future of psychedelics in mental health therapies.

“I just think there’s so much hope for psychedelics in the mental health space. I do think a lot of people are learning about it and understand there’s a huge need. There are a lot of people using psychedelics who have been using them through indigenous cultures for years. We need to also learn a lot from them as we try to commercialize this, medicalize this, and monetize it. There’s so much information out there and so much still to learn.”

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