New research published in the Australian Psychologist Journal claims Australia is missing out on the benefits of using psychedelic drugs to treat a range of mental health illnesses.
The research, conducted by Edith Cowan University, Curtin University and Monash University says data gathered over the past 15 years has investigated the use of drugs including LSD, MDMA and psilocybin and the impact they have on people living with conditions such as post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.
However, misinformation and prejudice towards these types of drugs has halted psychedelic research in Australia, and other countries, meaning drug companies are hesitant to develop psychedelic treatments.
The study’s lead author Stephen Bright told Starts at 60 that Australia is falling behind when it comes to research on psychedelic treatments, noting a number of prestigious institutions including UCLA, John Hopkins School of Medicine and New York University have already conducted a series of clinical trials.
“The research is showing that psychedelics can be used as medicines to treat a range of mental health issues including depression, anxiety associated with terminal illness, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” he says. “Evidence regarding the effectiveness of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is emerging from the US, the UK, Canada, Israel, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and even New Zealand, though not in Australia.”
He says different types of psychedelic drugs can have positive impacts on people – depending on their illness.
“In the case of PTSD, current treatments often fail as people get overwhelmed by having to talk about the traumatic event,” he explains. “MDMA (or ecstasy) reduces the fear response while increasing people’s capacity to talk about the trauma. It also increases empathy allowing people to forgive themselves if they are experiencing survivors guilt.”
He notes that for people living with a terminal illness, a range of negative psychological symptoms are often experienced, which often leads to a decrease in the quality of their life.
“There are currently no psychological treatments that have been found to affective in reducing this suffering,” Bright says. “Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is effective at reducing anxiety and improving the quality of life for people suffering end-stage cancer through inducing a mystical experience.
“Depending on the person’s spiritual framework, this experience involves a sense of unity with the cosmos, unity, a noetic quality, sacredness, transcendence of time/space and a certain ineffable quality. It seems that this mystical experience provides a sense of peace for the individual – that everything is going to be okay.”
Bright adds that a lot of the stigma surrounding this controversial form of treatment isn’t actually based on fact.
“Much of the stigma surrounding psychedelic drugs, including their prohibition, is based on morality and not science,” he says.
Still, he notes that as science continues to develop, the stigma surrounding these drugs will continue to be challenged.
“This was essentially the point of myself and Martin writing the paper that was published in Australian Psychologist,” Bright explains. “We wanted to challenge some of the myths held by healthcare professionals regarding psychedelics. Further, some of the research is now in advanced stages. The US FDA have approved Phase III clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.”
This means MDMA could be seen as a legitimate medicine in America by 2021.
While research shows psychedelic drugs can help treat patients with mental illness, it will be difficult to sell the premise to the public. Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first discovered drugs had the potential to shift the conscious mind in 1938. They were popularised in the ’50s and ’60s and were used to treat an array of psychological and psychiatric conditions. During this time, tens of thousands of people took the drugs as part of clinical studies to assess their impact in addition to psychotherapy.
When word of the drugs’ trippy effects got out, millions began experimenting and LSD quickly became a symbol of youthful rebellion. Eventually, the effects of the drugs became a cause for concern and governments around the world put an end to scientific research into their potential. As with any drugs, psychedelic drugs come with risks and hallucinogens are known to increase the heart rate and blood pressure, which can become a major health risk for those already susceptible to heart conditions.
In other cases, the body temperature can increase dramatically, causing dehydration and a loss of body fluid through excess sweating. Others lose control of their their muscles, experience a loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and other negative impacts on their gastrointestinal system.
However, Bright says more research into the drugs’ effects will help find safe ways to use them as a legitimate form of treatment.
“I think people who are concerned about the suffering of people with a terminal illness or PTSD need to lobby for the establishment of trials in Australia so that these treatments can be made available,” Bright says. “By not establishing clinical research into these therapies in Australia, many older people will continue to suffer since they cannot access these treatments.”
Bright doesn’t recommend people accessing these treatments through the underground psychotherapeutic community, noting there are big risks with this.
“The drugs are not pharmaceutical grade and there is no accreditation of psychedelic therapists in Australia – yet.”