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Can LSD revolutionise mental health treatment?

We speak to people who battle with mental health issues and self-medicate with the powerful, fabled hallucinogenic

“It’s given me the motivation to obtain goals, think outside the box and question and reshape warped world views I've held my entire life. It’s also given me the strength to admit my own weak points and given me the confidence to work on them as well as allowed me to pursue my own dreams instead of societies projected dreams. The list goes on.”

LSD. There aren’t many three letter combos more loaded than that. Just the acronym itself elicits images of barefoot hippies making flower crowns at obscure music festivals, ravers hitting it hard for days on end, or an innocent youth losing their mind to an unrecoverable psychosis after one acid trip. In most quarters of the media, psychedelics have a bad rep. And it’s this rep that’s made funding and research into the drug extremely difficult.

Jack* has been self-medicating with psychedelics after a six-year battle with anxiety and clinical depression. Spending many of his days watching waves crash on the crumbling cliffs below him, Jack was introduced to the drugs through a friend. While it hasn’t completely eliminated his depression, Jack quickly noticed potential for growth and therapeutic healing. “Psychedelics have reminded me to enjoy the present, have gifted me visions of myself from other people's perspective, completely eliminated my fear of death and have broken bad habits,” Jack said.

Stories like Jack’s are not uncommon. There have even been early studies that suggest psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (found in ‘magic’ mushrooms) ayahuasca, ketamine and MDMA, have powerfully therapeutic properties that could treat a number of mental illnesses. With the world facing unprecedented levels of psychological disease, further research into these potentially healing properties is needed more than ever. While positive studies into psychedelics are promising, lack of funding as well as the drugs’ highly illicit status means that the number of positive studies is quite low.

“Psychedelics have reminded me to enjoy the present, have gifted me visions of myself from other people's perspective, completely eliminated my fear of death and have broken bad habits”

The Beckley Foundation are aiming to change this as one of the UK’s leading psychedelic research facilities focusing on LSD and psilocybin psychotherapy. Beckley Foundation science officer, Dr Alex O’Bryan-Tear, believes psychedelic research is a ‘strikingly neglected’ field with skewed research into the negative effects of the drugs.

“I think it’s hard for people to perceive psychedelics as potential therapeutic tools because they have this reputation of being so dangerous, as being this recreational drug that can lead to grave harm and accidents, and so they can only be taken by malevolent parts of society, which just isn’t true … they’ve been prescribed by psychiatrists to patients who need therapy,” said Dr O’Bryan-Tear. The world of psychiatry and psychotherapy has lost a very valuable therapy which they haven’t been able to replace with the other drugs.”

The rise of recreational use in ‘60s quickly associated psychedelics with the counter-cultural uprisings in the US, Europe and Australasia and their criminalisation put a halt to important research in the area. Today, psychedelic research is re-emerging around the globe and yet many researchers are still reluctant to explore the potential of these powerful drugs. This could be attributed to their illicit status, which is based on the drugs’ potential to cause harm. However, current research suggests psychedelics are not addictive and actually have a low risk of harm. This feeds into the idea that rather than remaining illegal due to being harmful, the negative perception of psychedelics is maintained to justify their illicitness. With the Government funding programs dedicated to providing evidence of drug harm, it’s difficult to receive funding to counteract that.

Many of the studies devoted to demonstrating drug harm actually fail to take into account a number of important variables such as the environment the hallucinogen is used in which is needed to understand how the drug works. When LSD, for example, is administrated in a clinical setting and in a therapeutic context, negative side effects associated with a ‘bad trip’ are unlikely to happen, which suggests “bad trips” only occur when people take psychedelics in unsafe or uncontrolled settings.

“No research has actually been conducted in the lab on microdosing ever, not even in the 50s and 60s when LSD was still legal and being researched” – Dr O’Bryan-Tear

Research with the goal of financial gain also tends to be less credible. For example, research on MDMA often interchangeably use the terms MDMA and ecstasy. However, there is a distinct difference between pharmaceutical-grade MDMA and ecstasy pills bought off the street ladled with chemicals, sometimes lacking in MDMA at all.

In any case, medical use of psychedelics would be used under the supervision of trained therapists after extensive research and training. With a therapist talking you through what you’re experiencing, “you can often come to breakthroughs … which otherwise would take a very long time to achieve in traditional therapy, if at all,” says Dr O’Bryan-Tear.

The Beckley Foundation discovered that LSD in particular opens certain regions of the brain to freely communicate with new regions. With depression for example, negative thinking habits are formed and psychedelics can help reset the brain to a habit-free state.

“You can kind of make new links between things, you can discover new ideas or see the world in a new way,” says O’Bryan-Tear.

The Beckley Foundation is also pioneering research into the field of microdosing. Microdosing is the practice of taking sub-perceptual doses of psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin and has long been used by techies in Silicon Valley who claim that small doses of psychedelics can offer clarity and heighten creativity.

“Microdosing has really captured the public’s imagination at the moment, but the fact is that no research has actually been conducted in the lab on microdosing ever, not even in the 50s and 60s when LSD was still legal and being researched,” Dr O’Bryan-Tear said.

“With microdosing you can just go about your day as normal and so that could be very useful for a medical model which wants people to sort of take a drug and then be able to just essentially continue as normal or continue with improved abilities which could be very helpful in treating OCD, depression and even anorexia.”

“I get to go to work and I get on with my normal life but I have a much better outlook on life. I feel I have an increased stamina or like mental focus and a deeper interest in what I’m doing” – *Lucy

Lucy* has been microdosing LSD for seven months and, like many, has been using it to heighten her productivity and improve her mood. “I think microdosing is the best way to access the healing benefits of psychedelics without having to give up complete control,” she says. “I get to go to work and I get on with my normal life but I have a much better outlook on life. I feel I have an increased stamina or like mental focus and a deeper interest in what I’m doing”.

But like with any drug, it can’t cure everything. Dr O’Bryan-Tear recommends that people with chronic anxiety or those at risk of psychoticism such as psychosis or schizophrenia shouldn’t be taking psychedelics as there is “arguably a link” between the two.

Globally, psychedelic research is in its early stages. But if we’re going to treat mental illness as effectively as we treat broken bones and the flu, we have to think outside of antidepressants. Support needs to gravitate towards the research institutions like the Beckley Foundation are producing. Ridding the stigma, arrest prospects and black market dealership, and instead prescribing psychedelics with compassion and medical knowledge, these drugs could make a real difference.

 

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