Psychedelics: The spiritual Prozac
Stella Logan | August 2017
According to the World Health Organization, depression is one of the most prevalent psychiatric conditions, affecting more than 300 million people worldwide. When long-lasting and moderate to severe in intensity, depression becomes a serious health condition, and at its worst can lead to suicide. Every year, nearly 800,000 people choose to forgo their existence and end their own life. Unlike other diseases that have declined in frequency due to improvements in detection and treatment, both major depression and suicide rates are on the rise globally.
The typical treatment for depression often involves antidepressant medication, commonly Prozac or Xanax. But only half of those who try antidepressants respond to them. Those who are fortunate to do so still have to wait several weeks, even months, before experiencing relief. For some, it is a relief that comes too late.
In December 2014, 30-year-old Kyra* quit her job as a lawyer at a well-established firm, despite the pleas of her bosses. Unbeknownst to them, she had fallen victim to depression. It had been eating away slowly at her mind for years. Wisps of suicidal thoughts had even begun to creep to the surface.
Desperate to escape her situation, Kyra packed her bags and jumped on a flight to Amsterdam on a whim. It was there, sitting in her friend’s garden, that she tried a psychedelic drug, LSD, for the first time.
As its effects took hold, the landscape around her transformed into the Garden of Eden. Birds flew past, singing a chorus in a sea of blue, as the air gently blew towards her, cupping her face and breathing its warmth and love into her. The trees sighed and whispered as they gently rustled in the wind. Every corner of Eden was filled with colour, noise and liveliness. It was perfect. That moment, Kyra says, altered the course of her life forever.
Her drug-induced experience struck a chord. "I realised I had a choice. I can either continue to live the way I had been, miserable and angry and sad. Or I can embrace life and see beauty in everything." The day after she flew back home, Kyra went out and bought a pen and diary, and locked herself in her apartment for two weeks as she pulled apart everything she knew, thought and felt about herself.
"I dug up the root of my depression and anxiety. I questioned everything. How did I develop it? What do I feel? Why do I feel this way? Why do I hold on to it? I literally rewired my brain in the process. I taught myself to love myself. To be whole, happy and fulfilled. And to appreciate everything and everyone around me."
A few months on, with continued self-enquiry practice, she was completely purged of her depression. "I’m the happiest I’ve ever been!" she exclaims proudly, flashing a gigantic smile. Her energy is pure and infectious, and her eyes radiate warmth and joy.
Erowid.org, a website dedicated to harm reduction with information about psychedelics, contains a plethora of user-submitted stories bearing strikingly similar experiences. "How I Got My Life Back", begins one. "Saved Me From Despair and Worse", reads another. One in particular, "The Road to Recovery", tells the tale of an LSD experience where user, Mem, recounts:
… as I sat there, drinking the nicest coffee in the world and eating the best goddamned cheesecake of my life, I had one of those life-changing revelations that one often has on acid, but this one really did change my life… It dawned on me that because I'd slipped into my own little world and started ignoring everything around me I became depressed. At that moment, I finally saw the way out of my mental problems.
Psychedelics are renowned for their ability to alter conscious perception and, at times, produce seemingly transcendent experiences. The term psychedelic is derived from the Greek words psyche ("soul") and deloun ("to make visible"; "to reveal"), denoting "mind-revealing". Rock paintings dating back 10,000 years offer proof of the long history of psychedelics. Ancient cultures like the Native Americans have long valued their effects, putting naturally occurring psychedelics such as plants, cacti and mushrooms to use in holistic healing practices and sacred ceremonies, inducing visionary states of mind and undergoing profound exploration of the self.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that scientists began to develop an interest in psychedelic drug effects. In 1938, Swiss chemist, Dr. Albert Hoffmann, was the first scientist to create lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in a lab in an attempt to duplicate naturally occurring psychedelic substances. In April 1943, Hoffman accidentally absorbed a small quantity of LSD through his fingertips during a lab session. He was astounded by the experience that followed, describing the very first acid trip as:
… a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors…
Hoffmann would go on to take LSD hundreds of times, yet he always regarded his creation with respect, and saw its value in aiding contemplation and understanding of humanity’s union with nature.
Several groups became highly interested in LSD for different agendas, however. Scientists in the 1940s and 50s thought that it might hold the key to providing healing insights; a way to transcend psychiatric conditions like psychosis or mania. The CIA tested its potential as a truth serum to aid interrogations. The army saw its possibilities as a madness gas to inflict on enemies.
Then, in the 1960s, LSD met the hippie counterculture.
Young Americans, deeply frustrated by the societal and political systems in which they were raised, rebelled and forged their own path. Loud was their call for freedom from the US federal government, for gender and racial equality, sexual experimentation, and free use of drugs. Amid free-flowing long hair, vibrant colours and peace signs, acid use soared in popularity, and it became a symbol of youthful rebellion and mind exploration.
"Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, it is shining… yet you may see the meaning of within, it is being", The Beatles sang in their 1966 hit, Tomorrow Never Knows—a masterpiece borne out of their encounters with acid.
The explosion of drug use that decade prompted federal governments to illegalise recreational use and ban scientific research on psychedelic drugs, and human psychedelic research fell into a hiatus.
Slowly, the door is being reopened on psychedelics with a renewed focus on its use as a treatment for patients with depression and anxiety. Without the hindrance of political interference as there was historically, there now appears to be a serious opportunity for these drugs to meet a major unmet need in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.
Ketamine, a psychoactive drug primarily used for short-term anaesthesia in painful human and animal surgeries, is fast becoming the rising star of depression research. A trial evaluating the effectiveness of ketamine as a treatment for severe depression commenced in 2016 across Australia and New Zealand. The three-year trial is the largest of its kind in the world, enlisting 250 adults worldwide who suffer from acute depression and have had little success with standard treatments for depression. The results show hope for ketamine as a new treatment, with researchers seeing near-immediate positive effects of ketamine on people who are long-time sufferers of depression and have not responded to several conventional treatment or medications for severe depression.
Similar studies have been conducted in the US that also highlight ketamine’s potential as an antidepressant drug. A small clinical trial undertaken a few years ago at the University of California with eight chronically depressed individuals demonstrated that a low dose of ketamine was able to produce an antidepressant response within as little as 24 hours. The results were so astounding that the study was regarded with scepticism until another group replicated the findings with a larger group of participants. In this second study, 70 per cent of subjects responded to ketamine within 24 hours, with 30 per cent of those showing scores low enough to be considered in remission. Other studies have also explored the efficacy of ketamine as treatment for patients with other psychiatric conditions including bipolar disorder, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Ketamine was initially introduced as an anaesthetic in 1970. Inevitably, it made its way into the hands of rave partygoers and began to be used as a recreational drug. Its popularity along with its abuse potential led to it being classified as an illegal substance in 1991, with the exception of legally produced ketamine to be administered or prescribed only by doctors and vets for anaesthesia and pain relief. The success of the ketamine trial, however, may encourage government bodies in Australia and around the world to continue relaxing laws to allow medicinal use.
Frazer*, a counsellor and youth worker, agrees that psychedelics have significant capacity for self-healing and improvement. "Psychedelics are a very powerful tool―they should be used and treated as medicines," he says. The type of medicine he refers to, however, is not the disease-ridding kind perpetuated by the pharmaceutical industry. He is, instead, describing plant-based forms of the ancient medicines.
Psilocybin is one such substance. Originating from Central and Southern America, it is the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. The fungi has been used as early as 1000 BC in social and religious rituals to produce visions which aided in treating illnesses, solving problems and connecting with the spirit world.
Frazer recalls his own psychedelic trips with magic mushrooms as challenging experiences during which he was forced to confront negative aspects of himself. However, he believes that they provided him with an opportunity to view himself from a different perspective, which allowed him to reflect on his negative thought patterns and break out of them.
"It’s like having a mirror shoved in your face and being forced to look at yourself," he says. "You can very clearly see the way you are functioning, where you couldn’t do that before. It showed me that I could change on a behavioural level."
His comments echo that of renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, who investigated the powerful visions brought on by drugs. In his book, Hallucinations, Sacks writes: "We need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need detachment of this sort as much as we need engagement in our lives."
Psilocybin has recently garnered interest from academic researchers in the field of psychotherapy due to its potential to treat a wide range of mental health problems. New groundbreaking studies in the US show that a single dose of psilocybin is able to lift depression and anxiety experienced by advanced cancer sufferers for at least six months. Volunteers reported having "profoundly meaningful and spiritual experiences" which made them rethink life and death, ended their despair, and resulted in lasting improvement in the quality of their lives.
Of his own experience, Frazer reflects, "Psychs further deepened my understanding of what death is, what reality is, what my 'self' even is." Through his own self-discovery, he found a new sense of direction, leading him to abandon his destructive life of partying, drug abuse and drinking. Inspired to help others find good in themselves and maximise their potential, he opened a safehouse where he now helps troubled and struggling youth.
Living in Australia where the current laws do not allow for recreational or therapeutic use of psilocybin, Frazer does not recommend or administer it to anyone he counsels. However, he still credits it for his own learning and development. "I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I’m doing now, if it weren’t for my trip experiences," he says.
"You can’t get rid of your negative emotions. They are and will always be part of the whole that’s you. But you can’t appreciate the good without experiencing the bad. When you examine and accept your negative emotions, and integrate them into your whole, the less they manifest and haunt you."
In his office, on the wall behind his desk, sits a framed quote which reads, "Do what you love". What does he love? The question, when posed to Frazer, causes him to break out in a broad grin―that exact same, pure, illuminating smile that Kyra had.
"Every moment is a moment of joy. Whether it’s making breakfast, driving to work, speaking to someone, surfing or reading. I create my own love and happiness."
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.