The New York Times reported last year that psychedelic drugs were being trialled in cancer treatment – not to encourage remission, but to help people face their own mortality. Far from being smacked up to the eyeballs to achieve this anxiety release, patients undertaking the trials experienced long-lasting benefits in terms of mood and attitude towards life – and death – from a single administration of psilocybin, the psychotropic substance found in magic mushrooms .
When taken in controlled conditions which encourage the participants to think about their lives and those they share them with, an emotional catharsis appears to take place. Subjects report being able to experience the emotions felt by their loved ones relating to their illness, and a spiritual connection to the world which enables them to see life as part of a process, therefore removing the fear of death. Effects were immediate, and scores on depression and anxiety scales were consistently lower at six-month follow-up.
Now this research is only small-scale, but if you cast your mind back, some of you will have read about David Nutt(bag)’s campaign to enable LSD and MDMA (esctacy) to be used in clinical trials to look at their efficacy in treating depression. Now I acknowledge that it’s probably the fault of the media, and it’s not that I contest what he has to say – I just find myself frustrated that I can see the world isn’t ready for his outlandish statements, so why can’t he? The man needs Alistair Campbell.
However, below the media hysteria that hangs precariously off his every word like a failed snot-rocket, are some incredibly interesting points, which not only support the research findings around treating the fear of imminent death, but have some potentially broader-reaching implications. Psilocybin, for example, has been found to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders, by shutting down parts of the brain associated with the unhelpful and repetitive thought processes on which the illnesses feed. It has also given some insight into the neuropsychology of schizophrenia. MDMA appears to enable post-traumatic stress sufferers to revisit problematic memories without experiencing overwhelming fear. It seems that the drugs associated with free love may in fact be capable of breaking introspective thought patterns and giving us back our sense of perspective. (Which, let’s face it, most of us in the western world would benefit from.)
Now I am not suggesting that wigging oneself out on pills and mushrooms everyday is a health intervention. Far from it. We all know the pie-eyed star-gazers who went a bit too far for a bit too long and, after a brief spell of drug-induced psychosis, now shuffle around talking to themselves, looking constantly surprised, devising conspiracy theories about the Government. Too much of these substances can cause long-lasting damage to the grey stuff. But who is to say that measured doses of these active ingredients couldn’t have their place in mental health treatment? Or, for that matter, addiction treatment?
Anyone who has ever had cognitive behavioural therapy, solution-focused therapy, hypnotherapy – pretty much any psychological intervention – will know that the their fundamental bases are breaking unhelpful, engrained thinking patterns. If you can help people lift their heads to see above these negative cycles, they realise that life doesn’t have to be like this. Now if a controlled dose of psilocybin can achieve this, a) the massive financial burden of treatment for depression, anxiety and addiction would be minimalised, and b) I’d be out of a job. Sounds like a plan.
In his usual ‘all right David, tone it down a bit’ way, Professor Nutt has claimed that it’s “outrageous” and “a scandal” that further studies into this have not been done, but I think he has a profound point – the only thing complicating this research taking place is the illegality of the substances involved.
Whether or not you agree with decriminalising drugs as a whole, I think there can be little argument that these substances should not be made available to medical researchers. And this is in a country where George Osborne is making beer cheaper. (How thick and easily-pleased do you actually think we plebs are, George?) I increasingly struggle to understand the arbitrary disparity between the Government’s treatment of different substances… Maybe I’m going a bit Nutts.