LSD was created in a lab in basal in 1943 by unsuspecting Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, after he accidentally ingested a chemical he was synthesizing to stimulate respiration and the nervous system. Following his discovery of the potent hallucinogen, thousands of LSD studies were carried out in the 1950s and 1960s by a group of pioneering psychiatrists who showed that psychedelic drugs have promising potential to treat numerous mental health disorders.
After being popularized by musicians such as Jimmy Hendrix and other celebrities, the recreational use of psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms spread rapidly during the 1960s becoming synonymous with the hippy counterculture movement of the time.
In 1971 the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced by the UK parliament, classifying psilocybin, (the main compound in magic mushrooms) DMT and LSD as illegal class A drugs. In that same year a UN convention on psychedelics classified them as schedule 1 drugs –those deemed to have no medicinal benefit. As a result of this ruling scientific progress in psychedelic research effectively ended, until recently.
For many 2018 is considered the year of change for British drug policy after the government rejected the use of medical marijuana for a six-year-old boy with epilepsy who had 3,000 seizure in a year. Owing to public outcry, the home secretary Sajid Javid ordered a review of marijuana being used for therapeutic purposes. Based on this cannabis review , the London-based Psychedelic Society, a campaign that advocates that psychedelics can improve well being launched its Psychedelics for Mental Health campaign. The campaign is calling for the rescheduling of psilocybin from schedule 1 to schedule 2. Schedule 2 drugs can be prescribed and legally possessed by pharmacists and doctors and by rescheduling psilocybin, research on the medicinal benefits of psychedelics would become cheaper and more accessible. It is clear the narratives around these substances are changing.
More than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression and for many of them antidepressants are not an effective form of treatment. Stephen Reid the founder of the Psychedelic Society and others believe that psychedelics, particularly psilocybin could potentially treat depression calling it a “breakthrough” treatment for mental health.
“Most antidepressant medication that’s prescribed, SSRI’s and so on, simply masks the symptoms of depression but what we are seeing with psilocybin is that it has the potential to really get to the root of the cause. Taking people to the source of why they are feeling the way they are and to resolve it,” says Reid.
There have been two promising early studies coming out of Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins in the USA about the affects of psilocybin in treating depression. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris was the head of the study at Imperial College London, which tested 20 participants who were suffering from severe depression in 2009. The participants were given psilocybin and therapy sessions with a therapist, who would interact with them when taking the drug. After three months, the study concluded that the antidepressant effects were greater and more effective for those taking psilocybin than for the participants taking common antidepressants. The treatment allows individuals to “recalibrate in a healthier way, so you’re revising your beliefs and assumptions and addictions,” says Harris.
The effects of psilocybin on the brain is not yet fully understood and more research needs to be conducted before the UK government would consider rescheduling psilocybin but Dr. Carhart Harris’s findings suggests that the substance “heats up the mind from its rigidity” enabling people with severe depression to overcome fixed, self-destructive patterns of thinking.
LSD and the Amazonian psychedelic ayahuasca have also shown potential to treat mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
James, a 25 year old man has suffered from depression since adolescence, struggling with feelings of sadness, inadequacy and suicidal thoughts. While at high school he described himself as an “extremely depressive person that kept falling into destructive mental paths”.
After a number of failed suicide attempts, James turned to psychedelics to escape his reality. He tried LSD for the first time with his best friend and felt antidepressant effects for days after his first trip.
“There was a shift, I noticed my mind felt like it took a shower for the first time. I started to become genuinely happy. I think I was at the point in my life when I was ready for change and it was a catalyst for a positive spiral. I’ve turned a page and I look at life with a new perspective”.
Although many challenges lie ahead it appears that the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of mental health disorders is gaining momentum. In the near future psychedelics may prove to be the new class of treatment, capable of transforming mental health.
Originally published in The River newspaper as a part of the Mindful Supplement.