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How Does Psychedelic Therapy Work for Treating Depression? 

Psychedelic therapy is being studied more and more these days on how it can treat depression. This type of therapy is when plants and their compounds induce hallucinations to treat mental health conditions, like depression

Psychedelic therapy is being studied more and more these days on how it can treat depression. This type of therapy is when plants and their compounds induce hallucinations to treat mental health conditions, like depression. It can treat other mental health disorders as well, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some common compounds doctors use for treatment include psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, and mescaline (peyote). The study of psychedelics for treating mental health issues is relatively new. Still, recent research implies that these psychedelics can help some people with specific symptoms. This is especially true when they have tried other treatment options that haven’t worked for them.

Traditional medications, like antidepressants, for mental health conditions, can take a few weeks to work. Or, they will only work for the length of time that a person takes them. However, much of the research on psychedelic therapy discovered an immediate improvement within patients, usually with only a single dose.

Researchers are not entirely sure how or why psychedelics work in this way. Some theories include that they might “reset” the brain by shifting neurotransmitter levels. Another is that they may induce a new life perspective by causing the person to go through a mystical experience. It can also teach them alternative ways of thinking. In addition, some research shows that these psychedelics increase suggestibility. This term means that they encourage a person to be more open to ideas discussed in therapy.

What Types of Psychedelic Therapy Treatment Options Are There?

Doctors use various drugs in psychedelic therapy; however, new research has analyzed psilocybin, a substance found in psychedelic mushrooms. 

Some other drug options include the following:

Psychedelic therapy is still considered an experimental treatment, meaning that people can only access this treatment in clinical trial settings. Some of the types of psychedelic treatment include the following:

  • Drug-assisted therapy: This treatment is when a provider provides traditional treatments, like psychotherapy, along with psychedelics.
  • Psychedelics on their own: A provider in this treatment option may only give a person a psychedelic drug, with no other treatment alongside. 
  • Guided therapy: In some psychedelic treatment plans, a person will guide the patient through the psychedelic “high,” with therapeutic suggestions and methods that help the person stay calm.

What Recent Studies Have Been Conducted on Psychedelics for Depression?

In 2020, a study of 27 people determined that a treatment using the hallucinogen psilocybin worked better than typical antidepressant medications. This study was conducted by a team that reported their findings in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. According to Alan Davis, one of the study’s authors and a faculty member at John Hopkins University and Ohio State University: “The effect was more than four times greater.” 

The study follows earlier research that hinted that psilocybin could work against depression. This earlier study by researchers at Johns Hopkins found it could reduce depression and anxiety in patients who have life-threatening cancer. In reference to the study of cancer patients, Davis said that it “led us to consider whether or not this treatment might be effective for people in the general depression community.”

Results From the Most Recent Psychedelic Therapy Study

In the most recent study, patients received two doses of psilocybin on separate days and approximately 11 hours of psychotherapy. The drug was administered in a supervised and comfortable setting to put participants at ease. Davis said,” They have a blindfold on, they have headphones on, listening to music. And we really encourage them to go inward and to kind of experience whatever is going to come up with the psilocybin.”

Half of the participants started their treatment right away. The rest were put on a waiting list so they could become a comparison group until their treatment started eight weeks later.

Davis reported the following about the study: “There was a significant reduction in depression in the immediate-treatment group compared to those in the waitlist. And patients responded much faster than with typical antidepressants.”

According to Dr. Charles F. Reynolds III, distinguished professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine and the author of an editorial accompanying the research: “The effect happened within one day after the first session and sustained at that reduced level through the second psilocybin session all the way up to the one-month follow-up.”

He also said that the study is renowned for its scientific rigor and that “it offers, I think, a good deal of promise as a feasible approach to treating particularly chronic forms of depression. However, the results could still be skewed because patients were given instructions that they were going to get the drug.”

He mentioned,” Some of the rapid improvement that we saw could have been related to expectancy effects on the part of the participants.”

The study comes shortly after the Food and Drug Administration approved the anesthetic and party drug ketamine for depression. 

In Summary

Psychedelic drugs can induce powerful and almost immediate psychological changes within the brain. Furthermore, some research implies these changes can persist over the long term, which gives hope to people struggling with severe mental health issues and conditions.

Since this treatment option is still considered experimental, people cannot go to their doctor’s office or their regular therapist for treatment (unless they are offered a chance to join a clinical trial). In addition, researchers are still not fully aware of how they work, how to predict who will achieve the best results, or how to reduce the risk of side effects. So, all in all, the benefits of psychedelics remain is purely theoretical at this point.

As more research continues to emerge, psychedelics could become a mainstream treatment and more accessible to anyone seeking mental health treatment. However, until that point, people who are interested in trying this kind of treatment should talk to a mental health provider about joining a clinical trial.

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Billie Olsen

MODEL: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.