Monsters live in our heads.
According to the results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 19.1% of American adults experienced some sort of mental illness over the past year (SAMHSA 2). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) defines a mental disorder as “a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning” (American Psychiatric Association 19). A reevaluation of the nation’s current paradigm is clearly in order with nearly one quarter of the adult populace suffering from mental illness. Psychedelics hold the potential to significantly improve certain mental illnesses and should be legalized for medicinal use.
While consciousness itself still remains a mystery to the scientific community, we can understand how psychedelics affect us through studying their effects on the brain.
Psychedelics mimic specific neurotransmitters on a molecular level which imbues them with the capability of altering our consciousness (Ray 1). Serotonergic psychedelics, such as Psilocybin, Mescaline, and Dimethyltriptamine (DMT), are one of several different classes of psychedelics. These compounds are structurally analogous to the neurotransmitter Serotonin and bind primarily with the 5-HT receptor sites, TAAR receptor sites, and sigma-1 (σ1) receptor sites (Barker 7). Researchers aren’t quite sure how these receptor sites create the cascade of changes in consciousness seen with psychedelic use, but we do know the 5-HT series of receptors are frontocortical glutamatergic sites involved in serotonin related glutamate release; TAAR receptor sites are involved with the biosynthesis of cyclic AMP (cAMP); and σ1 receptor sites are involved with processes like neuroprotection, neurogenesis, fear extinction, and more (8).
Psychedelics have been portrayed as seriously dangerous and harmful substances; however, empirical evidence has undoubtedly begun to show that psychedelics present great potential for healing.
L.P. Cameron, et al, designed an experiment meant to mimic the state of PTSD where an individual becomes “triggered”. Traumatic triggers may cause an individual to react severely and detrimentally in a psychological/physiological manner characterized by, but not limited to, elevated heart rate, tremors, anger, fear for life, delusional thinking, and hallucinations, to events in life found to be synonymous at some level, either psychologically or physiologically, to the traumatic event. In the following quote from L.P. Cameron, et al, on the effects of DMT on behavior in rats, DMT was shown to have a significant effect on fear extinction:
Animals were fear conditioned as described previously in the absence of drug, and DMT was administered 1 h prior to cued fear extinction training .[sic] The following day, cued extinction memory was assessed in the absence of drug. Tone presentations caused the DMT treated group to freeze significantly less than the control group, indicating that DMT administered prior to extinction training resulted in a stronger extinction memory. (11)
The fear responses are so intimately interwoven with one another and elicit such powerful sensations that diffusing them becomes drastically difficult. However, the application of Dimethyltriptamine in a clinical setting shows a possible path for a pragmatic treatment of chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Interest in the use of psychedelics as medicines was spurred by the fact that some cultures have used psychedelics for their therapeutic properties for centuries.
For example, Ayahuasca has been practiced for what is estimated to be around 5000 years within Amazonian tribes (Narby 154). Ayahuasca is a ritual brew containing Dimethyltriptamine and Harmine (a MAOI which increases the duration of the DMT experience) which has been recorded for its use by indigenous cultures for its curative values. Luis Eduardo Luna, anthropologist and noted Ayahuasca researcher, writes in his article, Ayahuasca: Shamanism Shared Across Borders, “In healing, [Ayahuasca’s] uses include identification of illness origin, shamanic journeys to restore soul loss, extraction of pathogenic objects, and shamanic fights with the animated agents of illness.” While a healing paradigm presented in the shamanic system of practices may not neatly conform to the mainstream of modern medicinal practices, Ayahuasca’s continued cultural relevance and use for healing, alongside its recent proliferation of Western cultures, signifies its importance in the journey towards healing.
Psychedelics have gained a bad reputation due to a lack of knowledge of these substances.
The United States federal government has scheduled all psychedelic substances as Schedule I drugs. From DEA.gov, Schedule I drugs are defined as “…drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” However, already within this paper has evidence to the contrary been provided. The medical field has desperately begun working to have their voices heard by the establishment. Psychedelics have been shown in multiple clinical studies to provide potential treatments for a variety of mental health disorders.
Uncertainty has a way of breeding fear.
The National Drug Intelligence Center, a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, states, “The psychological consequences of psilocybin use include hallucinations and an inability to discern fantasy from reality. Panic reactions and psychosis also may occur, particularly if a user ingests a large dose” (Justice.gov). Psychedelics certainly produce hallucinatory states and panic reactions can assuredly occur. However, negative outcomes are significantly reduced under the proper guidance of a trained expert. Hallucinatory states, journeying through “fantasies”, and even panic reactions, all lend to the healing process that psychedelics can offer when taken in the right set, setting, and dosage. Legalizing psychedelics for medicinal use will allow for medical practitioners to be trained to deliver exactly that: proper dosages in the proper set and setting.
Mental illnesses can be extremely devastating to one’s wellbeing, leaving one with a feeling of persistent perilousness. Mental illness dominates a large portion of the US adult population, with even more going unaccounted because of the nature of mental illness and social stigmas which further exacerbate the issue of discussion. Mental health care and adults receiving assistance has been on the rise with 15% of American adults receiving care in 2018 (SAMHSA 4). However, current treatments present significant limitations which need to be addressed. Typical pharmaceuticals for mental health take extended periods before their effects begin to be seen as clinically significant. There exists a large body of individuals who are resistant to treatment with pharmaceutical medications and other modern interventions. Psychedelic medicines are immediate in their actions for clinical significance, and have been used to treat illness and disease in unconventional ways which show great potential for treating mental illness. The reevaluation of the legalization of medicinal use of psychedelic therapies is absolutely imperative at this conjuncture in our society.
Psychedelics undoubtedly present certain aspects which require us to manage their distribution. Large doses taken without supervision can lead to potential injuries of self or others. Thus, it is important to have trained experts who can administer the correct dosage and assist patients through difficult experiences if need be. Current regulations completely restrict the use of psychedelics and regulate them the same as crack-cocaine and heroin, drugs without any medicinal value. However, one cannot dispute the evidence presented by a multitude of researchers that psychedelics certainly possess great therapeutic potential. Nationally, and across the globe, psychedelics must be rescheduled to be inclusive of their medicinal value. Rick Strassman, the first M.D. to initiate psychedelic research on human participants, said, “Psychedelics show you what’s in and on your mind, those subconscious thoughts and feelings that are hidden, covered up, forgotten, out of sight, maybe even completely unexpected, but nevertheless imminently present” (qtd Psychedelicsocietynl.org).
Barker, Steven A. “N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an Endogenous Hallucinogen: Past, Present, and Future Research to Determine Its Role and Function.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol. 12, June 2018, doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00536. https://archive.org/details/NNDimethyltryptamineDMTAnEndogenousHallucinogenPastPresentAndFutureResearchToDet/page/n7/mode/2up
Cameron, Lindsay P., et al. “Effects of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine on Rat Behaviors Relevant to Anxiety and Depression.” ACS Chemical Neuroscience, vol. 9, no. 7, 2018, pp. 1582–1590., doi:10.1021/acschemneuro.8b00134.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. American Psychiatric
“Drug Scheduling.” DEA, www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling.
Luna, Luis Eduardo. “Ayahuasca: Shamanism Shared across Borders.” Cultural Survival Quarterly
Magazine, June 2003.
Narby, Jeremy. The Cosmic Serpent. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016.
Psilocybin Fast Facts, www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs6/6038/.
Psychedelic Society. “What Are Psychedelics?” Pychedelic Society of the Netherlands, 19 May 2018, www.psychedelicsocietynl.org/what-are-psychedelics/.
Ray, Thomas S. “Psychedelics and the Human Receptorome.” PLoS ONE, vol. 5, no. 2, Feb. 2010, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009019.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Center for Behavioral Health Statistics. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf.