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Mental Health Goes Alternative

Updated: May 9, 2023

In the 1950s, talk therapy and psychiatric medication became the standard approach to treating mental illness. It worked for some, but not for others. Those who are see no viable results from standard treatments are hoping for a new approach. Now, clinicians are examining a new approach to treating mental illness using psychedelics and substances that would normally be scheduled rigorously by the federal government. For centuries, other cultures have been using psychedelics and other plant-based medicines to treat a variety of ailments, including mental distress, and ketamine has been used to tranquilize horses. Studies into the efficacy of both of these are currently ongoing and some types of treatments and therapies using them have already been approved.


For some people with treatment-resistant disorders like depression, psilocybin therapy is a new option for those looking to get out of a rut. Most patients understand that it isn’t going to cure their illness, but can at least help them to access a time where they can address and purge deeper issues without the weight of their five senses.


Psilocybin (the active chemical in “magic mushrooms”) use began in the 1960’s and became associated with “Public Enemy #1”, which President Nixon identified as drug abuse. Now, there is a movement throughout the country to rebrand it as a therapeutic drug, as it has been noted to produce a positive outcomes in some people who have suffered with depression, anxiety, PTSD and other illnesses. Some patients who experience depression related to having cancer have tried this therapy and it has helped them face the reality of their situation and their mortality. As of right now, this therapy is very costly and available only those who can afford it. Consultations alone can run over $600. Part of the movement is to make psilocybin therapy more affordable.


Clinical studies have shown the effects of psilocybin on the brain. In one study done in the UK, eighteen out of nineteen patients suffering from treatment-resistant major depression experienced positive effects after just one dose of psilocybin capsules. The effects were rapid and sustained, and the researchers found, using FMRIs, that there was a reduction in blood flow to the amygdala, resulting in a reduction of fear and anxiety, as well as overall depressive mood. Researchers concluding that this drug caused a “reset” of what is known as the default mode network in the brain, which helps the brain to integrate autobiographical information, perceptions of others, perceptions of past events and information, and of the future. This ultimately helped participants of the study to sustain a more positive outlook on life and minimize their symptoms of major depression.


Another form of “drug therapy” is emerging as well. The use of ketmaine to treat persistent mental illness is becoming popularized in the United States. Those with treatment resistant depression and anxiety, as well as PTSD are the primary candidates for this type of treatment, similar to psilocybin. This means, that those who are seeking treatment would need to have failed two antidepressant trials at adequate dosages and durations, according to Dr. Vande Voort with the Mayo Clinic.


Ketamine is actually known and used as a horse-tranquilizer, but also produced euphoric and sedative effects on humans (in smaller doses, of course). It also has antidepressant and anti-suicidal properties. This drug is classified as a dissociative anesthetic. In treatment, it is either given intravenously or as nasal spray in the chemical form esketamine, brand name Spravato, which must be administered in a clinical setting. Ketamine has two molecules in it, esketamine being one of them. Esketamine helps to stimulate the creation of more synapses between brain cells, something that declines in those with severe depression.


Unfortunately, due to ketamine’s enjoyable experience, it has a growing potential for abuse, as is seen the United Kingdom and United States. Many teenagers and young adults are part of an epidemic of abuse for the drug ketamine. It is sold as a refined powder or liquid that is then either snorted, smoked by adding it to cigarettes or marijuana, injected, or mixed into drinks.


Due to this drug’s chemical nature, it has a tendency to build up into the system quickly and become concentrated. Eventually, with extended use (usually for a couple of years or more), this drug will begin to erode the lining of the bladder and urinary tract causes blood in the urine. This can lead the necessity of a bladder transplant. When some get addicted, they may find it difficult to quit, as tolerance builds very quickly, which can obviously lead to bodily harm.


There are definitely some benefits to using these chemicals safely in clinical settings, using the right dosages and safest forms available. The use of these substances can produce a mind-shifting experience that can help those who suffer from depression gain a new perspective and begin to grapple with their issues from newly formed synapse connections in the brain. So far, psilocybin has shown promising results for many, due to the ability after only one session for the brain to process information in a different way. Esketamine shows results in the areas of mood improvement and synapse growth, as well. It is possible that these alternative therapies will gain traction in the near future and help us make breakthroughs in the ways that we view and treat mental illnesses.

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