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Psychedelics in Therapy, Research into uses in Counselling and some thoughts.

Updated: May 19

I have been reading about the breakthrough in this area and know it is a topic of interest for many people. In recent times there has been a lot of discussion around the use of psychedelics in treating mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. However, Research has been quite limited, especially in the UK, because of the illegality of these drugs, making it difficult to research.

I find the subject fascinating, as I am interested in anything that causes change in the brain and of course because there has been a lot of interest around psychedelics for their fascinating effect for a long time.

There is inevitably a lot of anecdotal evidence from people who have used these substances recreationally and I am going to explore a little of the history and some of the observations that have been made in studies around the usefulness of psychedelics in therapy (in the future, should laws change) plus some of the history.

Before I write too much more, I will point out that I am not medically trained and I am not encouraging the use of these substances, this is simply a discussion around the research and some of the thoughts around it, and where it could possibly lead to and why this may be the case.

Trippie image.
Psychedelic gif with spinning multi coloured TVs

Firstly a little history. There was a lot of research and experimentation around the effects of psychedelics such as LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) which was discovered by a Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann in 1938. It becomes popular in the 1950s and 60s for its effects. It is well known as a hallucinogen and of course was even cited in The Beatles, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD. Not everyone agrees this was the reference, although of course it was well known that they did experiment with Cannabis and LSD for a period of time.

Due to the increase in its popularity and concerns around its safety, as well as its association with countercultural movements (Hippie culture, as already mentioned) it was banned for recreational use in the US in 1970. It remains illegal in a lot of countries around the world, including the UK.

Around a similar time in the UK, in fact in 1971, ‘Magic Mushrooms’ were also made illegal, their active ingredient being psilocybin. Unlike LSD, they are naturally occurring mushrooms, of many different species, the first historic evidence of their use is believed to be around 7000-9000 years ago in Algeria. They have of course been linked to shamanic and religious rituals for a very long time because it was believed they could give spiritual insight and have been evidenced in many different cultures all around the world. This of course also links into why they are seen as potentially beneficial in a therapeutic setting, because of this ‘insight’.

In recent times there has also been a lot of discussion around the rituals involving Ayahuasca, which is a traditional psychedelic brewed in the Amazon rain forest and is believed to have been used for hundreds of years in spiritual and healing ceremonies, its active ingredient being DMT.

It is probably worth mentioning that MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly is also being researched for its use in the treatment of such issues as PTSD and other historic traumas, there has also been some use of Ketamine in the treatment of conditions such as depression, these drugs having been created for other purposes and their properties as hallucinogens discovered later.

So why is there research on the use of these drugs in therapy for mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, and other historic trauma? Well partly because the effects that these kinds of drugs have on the brain and mind - no doubt the same reason that psychedelics have strong historic links to spiritual and religious ceremony. Their mind altering properties are thought to be helpful because they can treat neuroplasticity, which is believed can help the brain create new neural connections, it is thought that this encourages the brain to react and change.

Often with depression, it is believed that people get stuck into a pattern of negative thoughts, this is why therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are promoted for depression (to help change thought processes). It is worth noting that all therapy is essentially about change and finding more helpful ways to think about things, in order to live a happier and more fulfilling life.

There are many other properties that are seen as useful in connection with therapy and the properties of these types of drugs, such as altered state of consciousness, as there has been research around the fact that these types of drugs can increase introspection and self-awareness which is useful in connection with counselling. Introspection and self-awareness being useful ways to determine what we are struggling with, and what inner conflict is within us.

There is also research around the fact that the elevation of mood and emotion can have a positive impact because they induce feelings of euphoria, love, and connection - which is an important part of the therapeutic process. The connection between client and therapist is useful in modelling of healthy relationships and connections with others. As humans, connection is important and key to a fulfilled life. You can see how therefore, why people may want to ponder whether the use of something that lifts mood and causes an elevation of mood may be seen as helpful.

It is very interesting that psychedelics increase the areas that are naturally associated with the positives of therapy, the areas such as connection. When we think of medications prescribed for conditions such as anxiety, depression and similar mental health conditions, then Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are common anti-depressants and they work by targeting the brain’s serotonin system, which plays an important role in regulating mood, emotions and other psychological functions.

So you can see there are certain similarities, although of course SSRIs are used to level mood in people with depression and do not have the psychedelic properties of some of the substances mentioned. Inevitably psychedelics are largely discussed by people who have used them recreationally to experience the hallucinogenic effect and are often fascinated by the strange places their mind takes them. It is very normal of people to talk of a feeling of connection to the universe, again this is likely just the brain breaking out to different thought patterns due to the effect of the drug but it can leave people feeling as if somehow they have a reset on their thought processes.

I was able to look at some research papers on Google Scholar and also PubMed and there are some studies, such as : , which whilst noted are small sample groups to limited research at present, show promising signs for the treatment of depressive conditions, i.e. when psychedelics are used in combination with psychotherapy.

A major reason there is a push for this kind of research is because of the growing mental health crisis and the simple fact that in present times global health services simply can not keep up with the demand.

Of course, this piece is looking at how potentially useful psychedelics are in a clinical setting and not as in recreational treatment or self-medication which is an entirely different area. These thoughts and studies are around it already being in the super helpful setting of a counselling environment and just the thoughts around how the enhanced connectivity and other benefits could enhance the process, especially for individuals who are very stuck in their mindset, as can be the case with major depression or areas such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

I think you will agree though that it is a fascinating subject that is inevitable complicated by ethical and safety considerations but I am confident this subject will receive increasing attention in coming years.

Trippie image to do with Psychedelics
Magic Mushroom with unusual backdrop, thought provoking.

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