Psychedelics to treat mental illness? Australian researchers are giving it a go

For full article: The Conversation

An estimated one in ten Australians were taking antidepressants in 2015.

That’s double the number using them in 2000, and the second-highest rate of antidepressant use among all OECD countries.

Yet some studies have found antidepressants might be no more effective than placebo.

Not only does this mean many Australians aren’t experiencing relief from their psychological distress, but some may also be contending with adverse side effects from their medications.

Also, the provision of these medications is costing Australian taxpayers millions of dollars through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Australia needs a paradigm shift in the way we treat mental illness. Scientific research is increasingly pointing to psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more commonly known as Ecstasy) as viable options.

While social stigma and academic conservatism have seen Australia lag behind other countries in this area of research, we are on the cusp of the first Australian trial of psychedelic drugs for mental health.

This research is going to look at psilocybin-assisted therapy for anxiety and depression among terminally ill patients.

A brief history of psychedelics

Psychedelics are a broad category of drugs that can produce profound changes in consciousness. “Magic mushrooms”, containing psilocybin, have been used by some indigenous communities for at least 1,000 years. Other psychedelics, such as LSD and MDMA, were first synthesised in the laboratories of major pharmaceutical companies early in the 20th century.

In the 1950s, psychedelics were considered “wonder drugs”, used with psychotherapy in treating a range of conditions. These included depression, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol dependence.

But, in the 1960s, psychedelics escaped the clinic and became popular among the younger generation. In response to their association with the counterculture movement, a moral panic ensued. Psychedelic drugs were made illegal internationally in 1971.

Research and practice were abandoned, until recent shifts in attitude led to the re-emergence of medical research using psychedelics.

We’re now beginning to understand the neurological mechanisms responsible for the mystical states and creative thinking psychedelics can produce, and how they can aid the treatment of anxiety and depression.

In the past six years, two phase 2 clinical trials have shown psilocybin can improve quality of life for people with terminal cancer. Another study showed psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can effectively treat depression. Some 67% of participants showed clinically and statistically significant reductions in depressive symptoms.

On the other hand, various health conditions for which psychedelics are not suitable are widely recognised. In particular, people with underlying personality disorders or psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia risk worsening of their symptoms.

Meanwhile, a newly established charity, Mind Medicine Australia, is aiming to negotiate Australia’s regulatory framework to have psychedelics reclassified from the most restrictive drug category to one that accommodates prescription medicines.

If the results of our study, and those of others around the world, confirm the promise of the initial trials already completed, there is an excellent chance several of these treatments will be approved for prescription use within three to five years.