People Are Turning To Psychedelics To Treat Mental Illness

By Nicole Dominique··  5 min read
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SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are widely used in America as a way to ease depressive symptoms, but more people are ditching the pharmaceuticals for an alternative and psychoactive cure.

Users reported yesterday that Twitter seemed to be censoring the hashtag for psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, just after Canada announced that it will allow researchers to look into the health benefits of psychedelic treatments such as MDMA- and psilocybin-assisted therapy.

So what exactly should you know about this historically stigmatized alternative to SSRIs? Is this just another New Age treatment, or an actual alternative to big pharma meds?

The Psychedelic Wave

According to a federal survey, the annual use of psychedelics by college students increased from 2019-2020 by 8.6%, as well as an increase of 9.8% for those who were not in college but were in the same age group. In another study, done by Andrew Yockey, the use of LSD rose 56.4% from 2015-2018. And when Scientific American asked Yockey about how Covid may have affected the use of the substance, he responded, “LSD is used primarily to escape. And given that the world’s on fire, people might be using it as a therapeutic mechanism. Now that Covid’s hit, I’d guess that use has probably tripled.”

Lifetime users of psychedelics showed more positive traits like resiliency and stability during lockdown.

The Journal of Psychedelic Studies also recently published a study on May 4, 2021 that was conducted in Chile and Argentina. Researchers found that individuals who were lifetime users of psychedelics showed more positive traits like resiliency and stability during the lockdown, allowing them to handle the crisis more optimistically. 

But why is it that people are turning to illegal psychedelics instead of SSRIs, which are legal and commonly prescribed? 

Psychedelics vs. Pharmaceuticals

Everyone has heard of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Most people know it as one of the “happy chemicals” that help to regulate your mood, sleep, memory, and digestion. The role of SSRIs is to help alleviate depressive symptoms by supposedly increasing serotonin in the brain. Clinicians only recommend the use of SSRI treatment for six to nine months, but most people take them for years. This is because stopping immediately can cause relapse and a myriad of withdrawal symptoms

And unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that antidepressants will work effectively for just anyone: a study found that while the majority of participants who took antidepressants reported an overall improvement and quality of life, 30.7% still experienced moderate-to-severe depression. Others experienced adverse effects like sexual difficulties, weight gain, and apathy. Besides the physical downsides of SSRIs, price is also a concern for many young adults who don’t have insurance. Without insurance, the average cost of generic antidepressants is around $62.50 for just 30 pills, while brand-name antidepressants are at an average of $487.75. 

30.7% of those taking anti-depressants still experienced moderate-to-severe depression.

As for psychedelics, well, it’s more than just seeing trippy colors or watching the walls and ceilings move around. Because the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind becomes nonexistent during a trip, the experience itself can act as a sort of “reset button,” enabling users to see their circumstances and even themselves in new and healthy perspectives. Psychiatric disorders can be cured or alleviated after someone experiences this profound “reset,” and this could be attributed to the growth of new neurons and neuroplasticity. Neural plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rewire and adapt to changes within the environment from learning and experiences. Disorders like depression and anxiety have been shown to halt the growth of new neurons and synapses. But with the use of psilocybin or LSD, users experience long-term positive effects due to the neurogenesis that takes place when they’re consumed.

In a report by the New England Journal of Medicine, psilocybin proved to be as effective as the antidepressant Lexapro. With the use of mushrooms, remission was reported in 57% compared to just 28% taking escitalopram, another form of SSRI. The most common symptom reported the day after taking psilocybin was headaches. 

Besides psychiatric disorders, psychedelic plants like the peyote cactus are also shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which may prove itself to be a potential cure for inflammatory-related diseases. 

Decriminalizing Nature 

Cultures all over the world have always used psychoactive plants for physical healing and for spiritual purposes, and many are still used today by tribes and cultures. An ethnomycologist named Gordon Wasson identified the “Soma” featured in Sanskrit texts as amanita muscaria, a psychedelic mushroom. And in Greece, it’s said that a psychoactive drink called the Kykeon was consumed in the city of Eleusis. 

But despite its ancient roots, many people still believe that psychedelics are dangerous and addictive. The Western propaganda started in the 1960s when President Nixon declared “a war on drugs” and deemed Timothy Leary, a strong advocate of LSD, “the most dangerous man in America.” Today, many movies and shows inaccurately depict the effects of LSD and psilocybin, further enforcing the stigma on psychedelics. 

In one study, psilocybin proved to be as effective as the antidepressant Lexapro.

But with technology and research advancing, cities and universities are finally realizing the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. Phase 2 clinical trials are currently being conducted on the use of LSD and psilocybin to treat major depressive disorder.

However, the use of these substances is still criminalized in the majority of the U.S. It’s odd to think about how the government gets to decide what we do with our own consciousness, but at the same time, these plants should be taken with caution. With Detroit recently decriminalizing psilocybin, is it possible that other states may follow suit? Perhaps it’s only a matter of time until people incorporate psychedelics like our ancestors did.   

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