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It’s more common than ever to freely discuss mental health with friends and family. Individuals aren’t afraid to admit that they have a therapist or use medication to help control symptoms. With so much talk surrounding mental health and its treatment, the idea of psychedelic-assisted therapy has gained traction in mainstream discussions. Here’s everything you need to know about the process that could be a real breakthrough for some patients.

What Are Psychedelics?

Psychedelics are a class of drugs that can “induce hallucinations and other sensory disturbances.” They are found in nature or produced chemically in a lab. Well-known drugs include:

  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
  • 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA, “Ecstasy”)
  • Psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”)
  • Mescaline
  • Ayahuasca (similar to DMT)

Currently, the United States classifies all psychedelic drugs as illegal Schedule 1 controlled substances. Some exceptions exist for patients enrolled in clinical trials and members of specific religious organizations.

What Is Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy?

Research surrounding the use of psychedelics in therapy began in the U.S. in 1950. The Controlled Substances Act halted all research in the early 1970s. Interest in this area of medical application was renewed in the 1990s and has taken off in the decades since. Researchers are interested in the drugs’ therapeutic properties for patients with specific mental health concerns, including severe PTSD, substance abuse and addiction, and anxiety surrounding terminal illness.

Potential Benefits

When used with other therapeutic practices, psychedelic drugs may help patients access their unconscious and gain insight into their conditions that’s not possible with traditional therapy. A person’s response to psychedelics can vary widely depending on their state of mind and environment. Called the “set” and “setting” components, controlling these variables is key to using psychedelics for desired outcomes. A trial clinician can calibrate a therapeutic experience set and setting for each patient’s needs. After using psychedelics in therapy, many patients in clinical trials experienced lasting improvements in their mental wellbeing.

Important Considerations

While using psychedelics in controlled environments is generally considered low risk, knowing how the drugs might interact with your other health conditions is critical. Even though most psychedelics leave your system quickly, lasting effects beyond positive mental health improvements are possible. Ensure you’ve consulted with professionals and know the symptoms and signs. Since psychedelics can make you open to suggestion and more impressionable, the potential for abuse exists during sessions. Male-female therapy teams are a standard response to this concern. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) maintains a database of professionals who self-identify as knowledgeable in this area. If professionally disciplined, MAPS will remove therapists from this list.

Logistics of a Session

Psychedelic-assisted therapy sessions generally happen in three stages: preparation, ingestion, and integration. The first stage is vital for controlling the “set” and “setting” components. A therapist guides the patient through exercises to determine current obstacles and goals. The ingestion phase involves taking high doses of the drug in question throughout several treatment sessions. Therapists are present to monitor your condition, ask questions, and listen to your thoughts. Their primary goal during these sessions is to provide a safe space for patients to share more profound realizations. Finally, the integration stage is the most important. The therapist and patient meet to begin discussing how to use the new revelations to move towards the goals.

Photo: martinak via 123RF

What Is the Future of This Therapy?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently designated MDMA and psilocybin as “’breakthrough therapies’ for PTSD and treatment-resistant depression, respectively.” With many clinical trials on the horizon, there’s potential for this treatment style to become more prevalent in the coming years. This WayofLeaf guide describes the process if you’re interested in learning more about clinical trials.

If you’re intrigued by potential breakthrough therapies, keep an eye on this treatment option as it becomes more popular and widely recognized nationwide.