Can Psychedelic Drugs Improve Mental Health?

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Can Psychedelic Drugs Improve Mental Health?

This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that we are a culture of mental illness. From depression to PTSD to addiction, it seems like no one has a wholly healthy brain, and despite all attempts, we just can’t seem to get a handle on best treatment practices. From big pharma drugs to behavioral therapy to mindfulness, meditation and yoga, we are willing to try pretty much anything to get our heads straight, but what if the solution for our modern-day plague was right under our noses and also dramatically out of reach?

Psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD, MDMA and psilocybin, might be the answer to our mental health prayers. Contrary to the widely held (and incorrect) belief that psychedelic drugs are just for hippies or ravers looking to party, or that they cause psychosis from which users don’t recover, many psychedelic drugs have valid clinical uses. With the continued war on drugs however, funding for studies into the legitimate uses for these substances has been hard to come by. While street use for many of these drugs has increased over the years, controlled studies are just starting to make a comeback. Distinguished universities such as NYU and Johns Hopkins are leading the way in researching possible clinical psychiatric uses for drugs that have long been considered dangerous due to widespread anti-drug campaign propaganda.


A naturally occurring psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic or “magic” mushrooms, psilocybin has long been a favorite hallucinogen among illicit users. Known for promoting a sense of calm, well-being and one-ness, psilocybin has recently been the subject of several studies testing its efficacy in controlling anxiety and depression in patients with advanced and end-stage cancer.

The original pilot study, led by Charles S. Grob, M.D., of UCLA, aimed to determine if there was a clinical benefit in administering psilocybin to people suffering from anxiety and depression alongside advanced or end-stage cancer. After obtaining clearance from the FDA, study participants were administered a single dose of psilocybin in a controlled setting. Doctors and therapists closely monitored subjects for the duration of their “trip” and during subsequent follow-ups. Participants reported a marked decrease in feelings of anxiety and depression lasting as long as six months after their dose. Many subjects reported an increase in feelings of acceptance and well-being and a decrease in fear.

The success of the UCLA study has led to further psilocybin studies at Johns Hopkins, NYU and the University of Alabama Birmingham, which have yielded similarly positive results.


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Photo by F. Roy Kemp/Getty

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was created by chemist Albert Hoffman in Switzerland in 1938 and is commonly thought of as the hippie drug of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, it was actually considered promising as a psychiatric drug upon its development. Many studies were performed testing the efficacy of LSD in treating a variety of mental health conditions. However, when it was listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA in 1967, funding dried up and testing ground to a halt.

A retrospective study parsing data from tests performed at alcohol treatment facilities during the 1960s and 1970s has yielded promising results regarding the use of LSD as a treatment for addiction. A sample of patients undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction were given a small dose of LSD in addition to conventional therapies. Of all patients treated, 59 percent of those who received LSD decreased alcohol consumption. Only 38 percent of those who did not receive LSD had similar results. Also, six months after leaving treatment, the subjects who were treated with LSD were 15 percent more likely to have maintained their sobriety.

Recent studies have also been successful at proving a positive correlation between LSD therapy and the improvement of symptoms of anxiety in adults. Results were so promising that further studies are being planned.


MDMA, commonly referred to as Ecstasy (pictured at top), was developed by Merck in 1912, and was used primarily as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Beginning in the 1980s MDMA saw an increase in street usage and became a popular club and rave drug. It was listed as a Schedule 1 drug in 1985, halting legitimate medical study for a period of time.

Studies beginning in the early 2000s by the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies aimed to show efficacy in treatment of mental health disorders such as PTSD and anxiety. The MAPS research showed a marked and long-lasting clinical improvement of symptoms related to PTSD.

“MDMA-assisted psychotherapy compared with the same psychotherapy with inactive placebo produced clinically and statistically significant improvements in PTSD symptoms as measured by standard symptom scales. This difference was immediate and was maintained throughout the time period. There were no drug-related serious adverse events and no evidence of impaired cognitive function” says the study, which was published in Journal of Psychopharmacology.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has used these substances recreationally that there can be a mental health benefit. Many recreational users of psychedelic drugs report long-term changes to mood and overall emotional well-being. People who had positive experiences with psychedelics in their 20s commonly refer to their “trips” as life-changing in regards to mentality and outlook and embrace those changes even into their 40s. Considering the burgeoning mental illness epidemic in our culture today, these findings can’t come soon enough. The question arises, however, how our new anti-drug administration will affect the availability and accessibility of study data and whether, despite the positive outcome of preliminary treatments, these drugs will be resigned to Schedule 1 rigor for the next four years.

Kristi is a freelance writer and mother who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction.

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