A new frontier is emerging in mental health care, and it is surprising for professionals and lay-people alike. Researchers and practitioners are turning to treatments such as “psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy,” or PAP, to enhance the effectiveness of some of the more traditional treatment approaches, such as talk therapy. This treatment is particularly intriguing to those who are working with treatment resistant conditions, such as chronic depression, psychosis, and mood instability. This movement is not without controversy, as it may send the wrong message to consumers. For example, without understanding the nuances of dosage, supports that surround and buffer the treatment experience, and safety of the substance, sufferers may choose to “self-treat” with life-threatening and dangerous consequences.
Mental health disorders differ from physiological conditions in the subjectivity of both the reporter, and the treatment provider. While there are sure-fire positive or negative tests for conditions such as bacterial infections, cancer, anemia or even a dental cavity, our experience with most mental health conditions rely on patient report, and symptom experience. We treat using strategies such as trial and error, waiting to see if symptom reduction occurs, or if functioning improves. It is due to this subjectivity that sufferers with mental health conditions may not feel they are being taken seriously, or they may feel frustrated when their symptoms are not relived with treatment.
Enter psychodelic treatment. Its important to note the distinctions between treatment, and recreational drug use. It is also important to note that, according to federal and state laws, many of these substances are not legal, or can only be legally accessed in a controlled treatment facility. Additionally, the research is still very new. Because of legal restrictions, even the studying of these drugs and the effects that they have has been highly monitored and controlled, and we may not have long term research data.
Still, for those suffering, a novel approach is a welcome break from feeling stuck in misery. Lets take, for example, Ketamine treatments. Approximately 1/3 of those who suffer from depression do not experience relief from traditional psychotropic medication, talk therapy, or a combination. For those, deemed “treatment resistant,” Ketamine works on a different set of neurotransmitters. The effects are fast, which is critical for those whose depression is so significant that they are feeling suicidal and helpless. Ketamine also helps with pain management, particularly as an alternative to addictive painkillers, though its only current FDA approved use is as an anesthetic.
There is also growing research and use of psychodelic drugs in the form of microdosing. Microdosing, which involves taking very small doses of psychedelic drugs such as THC, LSD, or psilocybin mushrooms, is said to increase and enhance productivity, creativity, focus and awareness, as well as decrease experiences of depression and anxiety. Challenges and complications do arise, and because of this new frontier, which is not regulated by the FDA, it can be too easy to take too much of a substance, with the result of intoxication – not helpful in productivity!
There is still much to learn about how psychodelic treatment can impact and effect mental health treatment. What we do know is promising – that the substances that are used to alter brain chemistry can also be used to treat mental health conditions. Open conversations about current substance use, the impacts on mental wellness, and staying up to date on cutting edge healthcare are important responsibilities for mental health care providers.