Is psychedelic drug therapy on track to become as ubiquitous as meditation?

Psychedelic drugs show promise as a treatment for severe mental illnesses and addiction, but some believe the drugs could also benefit people without a mental health diagnosis.

'There's great potential for everyday people to benefit from therapy using psychedelics,' says psychotherapist

(Ben Shannon/CBC Radio)
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Welcome to Part Three of The Big Trip, a special Day 6 series all about the future of psychedelic drugs. Click here for Part One and Part Two.

When Estalyn Walcoff became a psychotherapist, she probably didn't expect so many clients to ask her to break the law.

Walcoff, who underwent psychedelic therapy herself as part of a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins University, says it breaks her heart to turn them down.

But in recent years, she's been fielding more and more calls from people seeking a guide for a psychedelic drug trip.

"Whether it's psilocybin or MDMA, they tell me they can get their hands on it even though it's illegal currently," Walcoff told Day 6.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in research into psychedelic drugs' therapeutic potential. The hallucinogens are being studied as a treatment for everything from PTSD to cigarette addiction.

I saw how connected we all are — in a way that I can't really even put in words, except to say that I'm not alone. You're not alone; none of us are.- Estalyn Walcoff , psychotherapist

The results, while still preliminary, have been promising. Many of the studies to date have reported success rates above 60 per cent, sometimes after a single dose.

Those findings have left people curious whether they, too, might benefit from the drugs — whether they have a mental health diagnosis or not.

"I think there's great potential for everyday people to benefit from therapy using psychedelics," said Walcoff — though she remains adamant that they should only be taken under professional supervision.

Estalyn Walcoff took psilocybin as part of a study on psychedelic therapy for treat cancer-related anxiety. (Scott Fybush)

Psychedelics for all?

To date, much of the clinical research on psychedelics has focused on their potential to treat acute mental health conditions, such as treatment-resistant depression.

But scientists are also examining the drugs' effects on so-called "healthy normal" populations — in other words, people who haven't been diagnosed with an addiction or mental illness.

In one 2018 study, researchers reported that healthy people who took psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, reported a general increase in feelings of gratitude, forgiveness and interpersonal closeness — along with a positive change in their sense of spirituality and purpose in life. For many, those effects lingered even six months later.

It is precisely what you bring to the experience that shapes how it goes.- Brian Earp, associate director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy

Research also suggests that psychedelics disrupt the brain's default mode network, which is closely associated with our 'ego' or sense of self.

As a result, people who take psychedelics often report a sense of profound oneness with the world — a feeling that can linger after the drugs have worn off.

Those findings align with Walcoff's experience.

"My heart opened and my mind opened," Walcoff said. "I saw how connected we all are — in a way that I can't really even put in words, except to say that I'm not alone. You're not alone; none of us are. And we're all a part of something much bigger than ourselves."

Alice O'Donnell, who took psychedelics in 2012 as part of a Johns Hopkins University study using psilocybin to treat cigarette addictions, recalled her experience in similar terms.

MDMA, the main chemical in ecstasy, is being studied as a possible therapeutic tool for the treatment of PTSD. (Reuters)

"[I remember] the whole expansion of my thought processes; realizing how great the universe is out there, how much suffering there is in the world, [and] how many people need help."

Brian Earp, the associate director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy, argues that if these preliminary findings are borne out, it's likely only a matter of time before the drugs gain mainstream acceptance.

"If a drug has a potential to, all things considered, make a person's life go better, then there's reason to think that … people should be able to have access to those substances," Earp told Day 6.

But not everyone is convinced by the studies' findings to date.

"I think there might be a problem with confirmation bias," said Jules Evans, policy director at the Queen Mary University of London's Centre for the History of Emotions.

"As with mindfulness science, there's a risk that the researchers collecting and measuring the results are quite emotionally and spiritually committed to positive results."

While Earp acknowledges the possibility of a placebo effect, he's reluctant to discount its possible value.

"It is precisely what you bring to the experience that shapes how it goes," Earp said. "You're having thoughts and feelings, reflecting on your memories; and that's not the sort of thing that you can isolate down to a molecule."

One gram of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Mindfulness for dummies

I think there's great potential for everyday people to benefit from therapy using psychedelics.- Estalyn Walcoff , psychotherapist

Earp argues psychedelics have much in common with other spiritual practices, such as religious retreats — or even taking a hike in the forest.

"When I go into the woods and I spent some time in nature … I sort of get away from thinking about the world in terms of my ego and my needs, and I connect more with the world around me," Earp said.

"These are the sorts of experiences that people have that remind them that it's not all about them — that there's a world out there that they should care about."

Earp says psychedelic drugs' effects are not so different from other spiritual practices like religious retreats, meditation or even taking a hike in the forest. (Julian Stratenschulte/AFP/Getty Images)

Earp believes societal attitudes around the drugs are already shifting away from the negative stereotypes of the 1970s and 80s.

"What's different now is that the drugs are being tested very carefully and people are moving a bit more slowly," he said.

He argues that if the research continues to be borne out, psychedelic therapy could one day become a mainstream wellness practice, akin to meditation.

For psychedelic drug advocates like Walcoff, that day cannot come soon enough.

"Many of my clients are suffering from anxiety or depression or sadness or because they always choose the wrong relationships or they don't get along with people," she said.

"I really think that my clients would not stay in therapy very long with that kind of help."


Written and produced by Annie Bender. 

Click here for Part One and Part Two of The Big Trip, a special Day 6 series about the future of psychedelic drugs.

To hear more from Alice O'Donnell, Estalyn Walcoff and Brian Earp, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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