Plant medicine is moving mainstream again after decades in the shadows. The effectiveness of psychedelic assisted therapies is being examined in clinical trials. They are showing promise to treat mental illness with breakthrough outcomes in clinical research.
Psychedelics are back in vogue with investors, researchers and entrepreneurs seeing them as the next frontier for fighting the mental health epidemic. Technologies designed for addiction by neuroscientists employed by tech companies, the erosion of offline communities’ companionship and support, and the stigma in talking about or caring for mental health, has led to real crisis.
One in five adults experiences mental illness each year. Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst people ages 10 through 34 and the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States. There are strong ripple effects from mental illness that impact additional health outcomes and our economy. If you have depression, you are 40% more likely to develop metabolic and cardiovascular diseases and 19% more likely to struggle with substance abuse. The US economy suffers a $193 billion loss in wages from serious mental illness every year, and the global economy suffers a $1 trillion loss.
Countries are appointing ministers of loneliness and philanthropists are funding psychedelic research. Tracey Crouch, appointed Britain’s Minister of Loneliness, is tasked with fighting the harmful effects of isolation in modern life. Johns Hopkins recently received a fresh $17M gift for psychedelic and consciousness research. Venture Capitalists are recognizing the huge problem and substantial cost of mental health and starting new funds focused on the topic. Entrepreneurs, seeing the new possibilities from clinical trials and strides toward legalization, are building startups to address an ecosystem of plant medicines administered in a medicinal context.
Yet, psychedelic medicines are largely misunderstood in our cultural narrative. Despite psychedelics being a promising psychiatric treatment commonly used in the 1950s to treat a large array of disorders, by the 1970s their use and research was banned. Their efficacy in treating psychiatric conditions and understanding the brain’s neurochemistry was overshadowed by their association with a rebellious counterculture and political dissent.
The FDA and DEA are increasingly approving psychedelic research. This is largely thanks to champions for plant medicines, psychedelics, and MDMA to be seen, tested, and understood as legal, legitimate, and effective tools for psychotherapy. Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) hopes MDMA will be available via a prescription by 2021. Cities like Santa Cruz, Denver, and Oakland have already moved to decriminalize psilocybin.
While research, clinical trials, and legalization are critical pieces of the puzzle, so is the de-stigmatization around plant medicines. Stigmatization of mental health and plant medicines prevents people from addressing their ailments and affects their accessibility to promising psychedelic-assisted therapies.
Just yesterday, the first ever campaign was launched with the hashtag #ThankYouPlantMedicine, calling on people to share stories of how plant medicines impacted their own healing. I shared my own story here about recovering from PTSD with psychedelic-assisted therapy. People all over the world updated their facebook profile pictures and shared their experiences. The organizers envision a “world where these substances are free from stigma and discrimination, for personal and collective healing.”
We live in a society with physical first aid, but limited emotional first aid. Mental health and emotional crises are dangerous because they are hard to see and stigma is a barrier to increasing societal health. Psychedelic assisted-therapies offer breakthroughs in societal mental health. It is important we have open and honest conversations about mental health and create accessibility to different healing modalities. When we change the societal narrative around mental health, we change the outcomes around mental health.
An integral part of what makes these therapies effective is set and setting. There is a strong focus on pre-session and post-session integration and care. Beyond the medicine itself, the effectiveness is rooted in the protocol emotional and spiritual care, which is why they are classified as psychedelic-assisted therapies.
There are hurdles psychedelic-assisted therapies must overcome, namely legalization and stigmatization. Another is that capital flowing into this space for investment must be careful not to decouple the emotional and spiritual care from the medicines itself in a bid to maximize profits over outcomes.