A few months ago, I heard the author Michael Pollan as a guest on not one but two different NPR shows within a week of each other. His topic? Using psychedelics for mental health.
And my thought when I heard this? Ridiculous.
The whole concept of psychedelics to treat depression seemed to broadcast “pseudoscience” to me. It seemed like an odd, fringe treatment. So even though I had been hearing about psychedelics for depression with some frequency, and even though I’m usually on the lookout for new depression treatments, I had excused the idea as far-fetched and non-scientific.
Then a cousin of mine messaged me asking what I thought about psychedelics for depression, with a note about a vote to decriminalize psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms) in Denver. I decided it was time to take a look at Pollan’s book.
I was amazed at what I learned.
How psychedelics are used to treat mental illness
First, I had assumed the use of psychedelics (like psilocybin) for depression had to do with medicinal properties of some chemical component of the drugs, and that they worked in a similar way to ketamine infusions for depression—that is, not by making you high.
Instead, it turns out the effect of the drug very much has to do with the high and the “journey” the experience—guided by a trained individual—takes you on. Again, this seemed far-fetched…until Pollan started giving examples. In his book, the reporter talks about how the drug has changed individuals’ lives, with incredible outcomes from these experiences, like neutralizing an individual’s fear of death, curbing a lifetime smoker’s addiction, helping a non-spiritual person feel spiritually connected to the world, and just by “foster[ing] new perspectives on old problems.”
Set and setting
That being said, Pollan emphasizes the importance of “set and setting.” The way psychedelics are used, and the setting they are used in, has a great deal of influence on the individual’s experience. The remarkable, therapeutic sessions he talks about don’t involve using an illegally-obtained substance, with a dose you’re not sure of, alone at home. When psychedelics are used for treating mental illness, the dose is carefully administered by a guide who then stays with the person the whole time. The guide talks with the individual throughout the session and helps guide their experience in a beneficial direction. According to Pollan, the setup often includes eye shades, a comfortable couch to lay on, carefully-selected music, and so on.
Part of why set and setting are so important, Pollan explains, is because the “bad trip” is a real thing—not just real, but also part of the justification for banning the substances in the US by the 1970s. He even says that it’s been found that, for an individual with a predisposition for schizophrenia, a bad trip can trigger their first psychotic episode. This fact highlights the importance of using psychedelics in supervised, controlled settings. Pollan also, though, presents research on how psychedelics seem to be more benign than other illegal drugs, specifically because research finds they do not seem to be addictive—though they do become less effective the more you take them.
Psychedelics are not a modern phenomenon, and using psychedelics to treat mental illness is not a new idea
Though psychedelics seem to be most connected with the 1960s and 1970s, I also learned their use—and therapeutic use—is not at all new. Use of the psychoactive substance peyote, for example, dates back more than 5,000 years in religious ceremonies and for healing purposes. It is still used—legally—in the Native American Church as “sacred medicine.” Reading Pollan’s book, it sounds like psychedelics have been associated with mental healing for a long time. It also sounds like the substances have a much, much longer history of being associated with the sacred, and being used to open the mind and foster insight, than as recreational party drugs.
Synthetic psychedelics, however, are relatively modern. LSD was discovered in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. The scientist believed it had psychotherapeutic applications, and championed its research.
And there was a lot of research. As Pollan explains, “there had been a thousand peer-reviewed studies of psychedelics before the mid-‘60s, 40,000 research subjects, [and] six international conferences on LSD conducted by psychiatrists and psychologists.” Psychedelics showed a lot of promise as effective treatment for mental illness, with star institutions like Harvard doing the research. Flash forward to today: Johns Hopkins is one of the institutions re-upping that research at their Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness Research.
Basically, this stuff is legit.
Reading How to Change Your Mind, I learned a lot: Psychedelics are not new, and using them to treat mental illness is not new. I also learned a lot about fungi, too, and should add a side note about them. Pollan talks about them as the natural source of psilocybin, in but consulting Paul Stamets, who seems to be the ultimate expert, it turns out they also have other amazing applications, from helping clean up oil spills to acting as a pesticide for ants.
My major take-away of this book, though, was finding out that using psychedelics for treating mental illness is actually already backed by a lot of research showing excellent results. This resurgence has occurred as the FDA and DEA are once again approving psychedelic studies.
The book convinced me that this has amazing treatment potential—needed in a world where remarkably little has changed in pharmacological treatment for mental health in years. I would 100% try this. In fact, I have started looking for a place where I can engage in this kind of therapy. Still skeptical? I encourage you to check out the book for yourself.