Why Psychedelic Drugs Might Be The Key To Treating Mental Illness

When most people think of drugs like LSD, MDMA and magic mushrooms, they likely picture a bunch of sweaty hipsters jamming out to EDM at Coachella.

All three drugs have a history of their own and varying effects, but they all appear to be starting a new chapter together. In recent years, doctors and psychiatrists have begun to study the impact of psychedelic substances on mental health.

This might sound like an absolutely absurd idea, as hallucinating is quite a terrifying prospect to many people. Not to mention, all three of these drugs are currently illegal.

Yet, the research presently being conducted could conceivably inspire a legislative shift surrounding these substances, at least in terms of medicinal use.

Gone are the days of dropping acid at Phish concerts, or eating mushrooms before watching "Fantasia," or popping Molly during a Pretty Lights show.

Well, not really, but at least these drugs seemingly have a higher purpose now, no pun intended.

Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Treat Depression And Anxiety

During the 1950s and 1970s, the federal government dished out around four million dollars to fund studies on LSD.

The hallucinogenic drugs were tested on everyone from people with OCD and depression, to alcoholics and autistic children. It was especially effective for treating alcoholics. Concurrently, the CIA tried to use LSD as a mind-control drug during the Cold War.

Up until the middle of the 1960s, drugs like LSD and psilocybin (psychoactive ingredient found in mushrooms) were actually legal.

They were made illegal after they become associated with the counterculture movement of that era. President Richard Nixon wanted to put an end to the party.

His actions were part of a string of anti-drug legislation that largely began the expensive debacle we now refer to as the War on Drugs.

Research on psychedelic substances came to a halt in 1970, but now it's back.

Studies have shown that hallucinogenics can help with anxiety and depression, particularly for the terminally ill.

Doctors and psychiatrists have been administering psychedelic substances to human subjects and observing their effects.

The research is being conducted at several universities with the United States and Europe, including Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center and the University of New Mexico. What they've found has been very positive thus far.

LSD is very powerful and has been stigmatized over the years. Thus, to overcome possible boundaries or objections to their research, doctors and psychiatrists are instead relying on psilocybin for these experiments.

One such example is Clark Martin, whose medical experiences with psilocybin were documented in the New York Times. Martin, a retired psychologist, suffered from kidney cancer as well as depression.

The worst part of having an illness like cancer is that thoughts of death never escape the afflicted individual's mind. Accordingly, mental illness is not uncommon among cancer patients.

Martin took psilocybin at John Hopkins medical school. After taking the substance, he lay down on a sofa, put an eye mask on and listened to classical music via headphones.

Simultaneously, he went on a very cerebral existential journey. Clark claims the experience helped him deal with his depression and improved his relationship with family members. He stated:

All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating. Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water's gone. And then you're gone.

This is reminiscent of The Beatle's hallucinatory song, "Tomorrow Never Knows," in which they sing, "Turn off your mind relax and float down stream. It is not dying, it is not dying. Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void. It is shining, it is shining. That you may see the meaning of within. It is being, it is being."

Interestingly enough, this song was inspired by Timothy Leary's book, "The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead."

Leary was a famous psychologist, writer and LSD enthusiast during the 60s and 70s, and his book was a guide to taking psychedelic substances. Perhaps both Leary and The Beatles were onto something.

Indeed, it seems that psychedelic substances can help terminally-ill individuals come to terms with their mortality. In other words, they can help patients face death and can perhaps help treat mental illness in general.

These drugs help people relinquish their ego and transcend their sense of self. This type of insight likely makes it much easier to make peace with death.

It's important to note, however, that these psychedelics are administered by experts in controlled settings. Hence, this isn't to say you should go find some mushrooms on your own if you're suffering from depression.

MDMA Can Help Treat PTSD

In addition to psilocybin, it's notable that doctors have begun researching the impact of MDMA on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Similar to LSD, MDMA was used during research by psychiatrists back in the 1970s. It has hallucinogenic properties, but perhaps isn't quite as strong as LSD or magic mushrooms.

Primarily, MDMA induces euphoric sensations and emotional warmth. These effects allow patients to open up and relive past traumas, allowing them to make peace with what happened.

Repressed emotions can cause severe psychological damage, particularly when they are traumatic.

For some veterans, the drug has proved to be extremely effective in terms of treating PTSD and depression.

Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a Charleston, S.C., psychiatrist, has treated individuals with PTSD with MDMA. In 2010, he found that 86 percent of those he treated were cured of their PTSD symptoms.

In July 2014, Mithoefer told USA Today that "MDMA allows users to reflect on their trauma with emotional clarity."

There are still concerns over the adverse health effects of MDMA, which may outweigh the therapeutic benefits.

Obviously, much more research is required until we can fully understand if psychedelic drugs are a viable way to treat mental illness.

At the same time, perhaps the medical revelations surrounding these substances will inspire a reevaluation of the War on Drugs, which has been costly, ineffective and damaging to society.

Citations: The Trip Treatment (The New Yorker ), How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death (The New York Times ), WHY DOCTORS CANT GIVE YOU LSD BUT MAYBE THEY SHOULD (Popular Science ), Studies ask whether MDMA can cure PTSD (USA Today), Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again (The New York Times), A Brief History of MDMA (NIH), The Beatles (Encyclopedia Britannica )