Turning a gloomy, dark grey cloud into one with vibrant colours—could psychedelic drugs be the future of mental health treatment?
Multiple trials are underway for the use of ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin to treat mental health issues, including depression, suicide ideation, PTSD, addiction, and anxiety.
“I see remarkable changes,” Dr. Keith Courtney said. “I have been a psychiatrist for 30 years. I see somebody who is in really severe mental pain, and then, six weeks later, they are a changed person.”
Dr. Courtney is a physiatrist at Wayfound Mental Health Group in Calgary, where he researches the use of psychedelics in therapy and offers ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.
As the most complex part of the human body, the brain controls thought, movement, and memory. However, for many, the brain causes the most chaos.
According to Canada’s Health Infobase, one in three Canadians will be affected by mental health struggles in their lifetime.
Studies have also shown that people with mental health issues have a small amount of neuroplasticity. The prevailing idea is that psychedelics can increase this neuroplasticity.
Think about it as an empty standing coat rack with long, naked arms extended. With psychedelics, the coat rack then looks more like a tree with branches full of leaves.
Ketamine, originally manufactured as a horse tranquillizer, is known on the street as Special K, a dangerous and addictive drug. However, when used in a clinical setting, ketamine has been known to treat depression, suicide ideation, and PTSD. Along with MDMA, ketamine is a ‘feeling drug’ that heightens emotions, as opposed to the hallucination that psilocybin produces.
There is a feeling of tranquillity in Wayfound’s ketamine treatment room, with its dim lighting and essential oils. At the centre of the room is a large, comfortable recliner with cozy pillows and blankets. Next to it are an eye mask and headphones to facilitate a peaceful trip.
During the process, patients experience vast feelings and emotions and/or metaphoric visions. This might trigger dreams or flashbacks of the past, allowing patients to work through what has them mentally stuck. To process these feelings and triggered emotions, patients will then work through their experience with a therapist in what is called integration work.
“You see this difference that goes—that is, softening in the face, softening in the body. [It’s] more interactive and less guarded,” said Courtney.
There is also dedicated research into using psilocybin and MDMA as solutions for mental health issues. At present, there is no one-size-fits-all medication for mental disorders.
“The mental health treatments that we have largely aren’t super effective for at least a large percentage of the population,” said Dr. Leah Mayo, PhD. Mayo is the Parker Psychedelic Research chair at the University of Calgary, where she researches the potential use of psychedelics to improve mental health.
“It is good that there are new options, and people are not satisfied with kind of the status quo solutions, such as antidepressants—[these] do not work for everyone,” said Mayo.
Although the results of these trials have been exciting and optimistic, psychedelic treatments are still continuously evolving. Many treatments have had positive results, but how long they last is still unknown.
Nonetheless, research has found that drug therapy does benefit those who struggle with psychosis, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. And though ketamine is the only psychedelic drug legal for mental health treatments at present, it is not covered by Canadian health care and can cost up to $5,000.
“It’s pretty remarkable, I have to be honest. Whereas if I give you an antidepressant, I’m waiting four to six weeks to see if it has an effect at all, really,” said Courtney.
As the study of psychedelics progress, the war on drugs may soon be over as the public adopts a new, more open mindset.