For over a decade now, studies have increasingly shown that certain drugs once thought to be dangerous may actually have therapeutic benefits—and psychedelic therapy may be especially helpful for people dealing with certain types of depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD.
These substances, broadly thought of as psychedelic drugs, include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in “magic” mushrooms), and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). All three of them are Schedule I drugs in the U.S., which is the federal government’s most restrictive classification for drugs, indicating that they have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses. Not only does this scheduling make these drugs illegal at the federal level, but it has also historically restricted the research that experts can do with them.
But now the global scientific community is going through something of a “psychedelic renaissance.” And research continues to show that, when used in controlled therapy settings, these substances can have profound mental health benefits.
What does psychedelic therapy actually look like?
“We have had success in demonstrating that psychedelics tackle particularly depression, as well as the mental distress associated with life-threatening illnesses, addictions, and more,” Alan Davis, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells SELF.
In a study from Dr. Davis and his colleagues, published in November 2020 in JAMA Psychiatry, 24 participants with depression were randomly assigned to receive psilocybin-assisted therapy immediately or after an eight-week wait. They found that participants who underwent the therapy had significantly improved depression symptoms compared to the participants who were still waiting. And overall, after everyone had gotten the treatment, 71% of the participants (17 people) were in remission from depression four weeks after their treatment.
This is an encouraging but relatively small study (although it’s generally on par with other studies in this area). However, it’s not like the participants just took a capsule and their depression vanished into thin air. This study outlined a model for a psychedelic-assisted therapeutic approach, which requires a structured and supervised setting and well-trained providers.
In this study, as in similar previous studies, a participant was required to first have eight hours of preparatory meetings with two trained facilitators. After that, the participant underwent two day-long sessions with psilocybin administration about a week and a half apart. During the sessions, the facilitators are on hand to respond to the participant’s needs; the participant lies on a couch with headphones on while listening to music. After the sessions, the participant has another two to three hours of follow-up meetings with the facilitators.
The patient received a total of 11 hours of supportive psychotherapy alongside the drug treatment to make sense of the experience and move forward with their lives. And the entire treatment process lasted about eight weeks. This protocol is similar, but not totally identical, to that of other psychedelic therapy studies. But what they all have in common is extensive access to support before, during, and after the drug experience.
How does psychedelic therapy work?
Currently available antidepressant medications, like fluoxetine and duloxetine, affect the amount of neurotransmitters circulating in the brain, such as serotonin. For many people, antidepressants can be an effective way to treat the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, especially when used alongside therapy. But these medications often need to be taken for years or even a person’s entire lifetime, and they can come with serious side effects, the Mayo Clinic says, such as sleep issues, agitation, loss of appetite, reduced desire for sex, and sometimes withdrawal.