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Will We Turn to Psychedelics for Mental Health Treatment After the Pandemic?

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Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic will likely leave a mental health crisis in its wake, experts say.
  • Meanwhile experts say we’re also in the throes of a “psychedelic renaissance,” where compounds like psilocybin may be able to help.
  • But when it comes to using psychedelics to treat mental health issues, safety is crucial.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely leave a mental health crisis in its wake. Based on emerging studies, researchers are predicting a rise in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and more in the post-pandemic world.

Experts say an increase in mental health issues will call for innovative solutions, including the use of psychedelics like psilocybin. But when it comes to using psychedelics as mental health treatment, safety is crucial. 

“COVID has made a lot of mental health crises worse. And I think we can play a major role there," Rick Doblin, PhD, founder and executive director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), told Verywell. “But the one thing that is not going to happen is the remote administration of psychedelics. The actual sessions are always going to be done under direct supervision.”

A Post-Pandemic World and Psychedelics

COVID-19 patients and healthcare workers are grappling with mental health consequences. Pandemic safety protocols like lockdowns and social distancing have increased isolation, eroded social connections, and exacerbated substance use disorders. The ongoing stress and worry of surviving during a pandemic has also likely compounded mental health problems for many. 

During a Harvard Medical School Health Policy and Bioethics Consortium, health experts discussed what role psychedelics will play in treating mental health.

Sharmin Ghaznavi, MD, PhD, associate director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that her hospital has reached full capacity and more patients are waiting to be admitted.

"The need is only going to be magnified at the end of the pandemic because of the isolation, because of the potential neuropsychiatric sequelae of COVID-19," she said.

At the same time, the United States has been undergoing a “psychedelic renaissance,” according to Mason Marks, MD, JD, a senior fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law, Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard School of Law. 

Researchers studied psychedelics and their psychological effects in the middle of the 20th century. But then human studies ceased in the ’70s and ’80s after federal drug policies banned psychedelics, according to a MAPS historical analysis. Research began again in earnest in the early ’90s as changing political attitudes helped push funding through. The last decade has brought about even more momentum, studies, and clinical trials.

“Substances that were once prohibited have now become the basis for an emerging multi-billion-dollar healthcare industry," Marks said.

Psychedelics and Mental Health

Psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, may help treat mental health conditions thanks to the brain's neuroplasticity, Ghaznavi explained. Neuroplasticity refers to how the brain can be molded and changed—almost like plastic—and therefore healed. Currently available treatments, like medication therapy, work by bringing about change. 

"Some of the factors that help make the brain more receptive to change or treatment are in lesser supply in patients suffering from depression and suicidal ideation," Ghaznavi said. "This reduces their brain’s capacity to change and adapt to the environment.”

Sometimes the brain is not receptive to traditional psychiatric medications and patients can be treatment resistant. “But psychedelic compounds have emerged as treatments which hold the promise of increasing the brain’s capacity to change," she said.

Early studies suggested that psychedelics may facilitate this neuroplasticity at the cellular level, which can change behavior patterns, improve functioning, and mitigate suffering, Ghaznavi added.

“Early clinical trials suggest immediate and sustained relief of symptoms after anywhere from a single dose to up to three doses of a psychedelic compound in a therapeutic setting,” she said. “Compare this to taking multiple medications daily.” 

Safety Considerations 

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies psilocybin and other psychedelics as Schedule I controlled substances, which are considered illegal under federal law. But some cities and states have decriminalized possessing small amounts.

Doblin said there’s a “moral imperative” to change drug laws, which can then lessen stigma for those seeking mental health treatment and those administering it. But safety is key, even for recreational use.

“Policy reform is not in and of itself enough,” Doblin said. “We need to build into the culture harm-reduction, psychedelic peer support. We have to train people to learn how to process difficult experiences and how to work in that way.” 

When psylocibin was decriminalized in Denver in May 2019, MAPS rolled out a training with first responders. “We’re educating them in a six-hour program of what to do if they encounter people having difficult trips,” Doblin said. “So we’re there as drug policy reform. We’re trying to come behind and create a community that’s likely to be able to support it to minimize problems.”

Doblin emphasized that psychedelics as mental health therapy should only be done in person with a trained professional. But research and clinical trials into psychedelics are still ongoing, and what constitutes a trained professional hasn’t been fully defined yet.

MAPS, founded by Doblin in 1986 as a nonprofit, now has a Public Benefit Corporation to develop and commercialize psychedelics. The process involves overcoming regulatory review hurdles with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since safety considerations for psychedelics may be different from other pharmaceuticals.

An MAPS-funded research recently showed promising results on MDMA-assisted treatment for PTSD in a phase 3 clinical trial. Researchers plan to seek regulatory review with the FDA in 2023.

Doblin said the big question is how to properly train therapists for MDMA-assisted treatment in "an affordable, scalable way."

Another concern is that psychedelics can have a decreased effect when coupled with some other medications used to treat depression or anxiety. During the clinical trials, MAPS had patients undergo a supervised taper of all their psychiatric medications.

“We prepare people for the fact that their symptoms may start to get worse,” Doblin said. “But that’s part of the therapy. That’s part of the process.”

It is a possible barrier to some and why those seeking relief from mental health issues shouldn’t try psychedelics without the help of a trained professional.

So when will mental health treatment with psychedelics become more accessible and perhaps more mainstream? Doblin projected that interest and use of psychedelics will grow over the next several years, with legalization likely happening around 2035.

“We will need a decade of rollout of psychedelic clinics for people to get comfortable with this role of psychedelics and hear a bunch of stories of people who’ve gotten healed that will change people’s attitudes towards legalization," he said.

In the meantime, the psychedelic renaissance will continue to unfold in the post-pandemic world as research—and potentially FDA approval—helps fine-tune how the compounds should be used to treat the traumas left in the wake of COVID-19.

What This Means For You

If you’re considering psychedelic therapy for a mental health issue, consult a trained professional rather than trying on your own, experts say. One option is to contact the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to participate in a clinical trial.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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