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How Psychedelic Substances Can Help Treat Anxiety, Depression And Other Mental Illnesses

Psilocybin mushrooms growing in the Netherlands.  (Peter Dejong/AP Photo)
Psilocybin mushrooms growing in the Netherlands. (Peter Dejong/AP Photo)

The world of psychedelic research is expanding.

Johns Hopkins University has launched a center for psychedelic research with $17 million in donations solely from private donors, the first of its kind in the U.S.

The establishment of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine signals “a new era of research in therapeutics and the mind,” according to the center’s director, Roland Griffiths.

That comes on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s announcement earlier this year that it had approved esketamine, a substance chemically-related to the party drug ketamine, as a nasal spray to treat depression.

The potential of psychedelics for treating mental illnesses — such as anxiety, depression, addiction, PTSD and more — has been the primary research interest of psychologist William Richards for more than 50 years, though for more than two decades he couldn’t engage in the field.

Richards began his journey with psychedelics in the early ‘60s, in the midst of a wave of psychedelic research, when he was a graduate student in Germany and volunteered for a psilocybin trial. Psilocybin mushrooms are typically known as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms” for short.

“That was before I had even heard the word ‘psychedelic,’” he says. “I had this incredibly profound experience. And in many ways, the rest of my life is footnotes to that experience.”

But by the late ‘60s, popular opinion on the substances had soured, and the federal government deemed psychedelics — such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin — Schedule 1 drugs. American universities slowed their research, and the field ground to a halt in 1977, when Richards administered the last dose of psilocybin to a patient for more than two decades.

The Schedule 1 classification, which is still in use for psychedelics today, means the government considers them “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

“I would say that arose out of the cultural change in fears back in the 1960s,” Richards says. “It’s distorted. It’s inaccurate.”

In 1999, he began working with other researchers at Johns Hopkins to kick the field into gear again, eventually publishing a paper on “mystical-type experiences” with psychedelics in 2006.

Psychedelics show “immense” promise when it comes to treating mental health disorders, he says. The university’s new center may usher in “a whole new era” of treatment for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness each year.

Despite a few caveats, such as if a person has an acute heart condition or genetic predisposition for severe mental illness, he says, the substances are “remarkably safe” for most people.

“They’re not toxic. They’re not addictive,” he says. “And they can be profoundly helpful.”

When psychedelic substances such as psilocybin or LSD are managed properly and responsibility, Richards says the patients often only need to be administered the drug one or two times to experience its “healing” properties.

It’s the memory of the drug that’s healing, he says.

“You remember that something shifted in your view of yourself, your view of other people, your view of the world, your understanding of what it is to be a human being,” he says. “And that’s incredibly fascinating and powerful.”

During a trial with Richards and his team, a patient first establishes a “solid, trust-filled relationship” with a therapist or guide over a week or longer. Then, once the patient is comfortable, the psilocybin is administered in a “safe and caring” atmosphere — similar to a living room.

That supportive environment allows patients to “feel free to just kind of sink into their minds, embrace whatever emerges — whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant initially — and trust the healing processes of their own minds,” he says.

Richards remains fascinated by the way many people, while on psychedelic substances, seem to be able to tap into the wisdom within their own minds.

“The human mind knows how to heal itself if you give it the trust-filled atmosphere and the opportunities to become deeply aware of the levels of consciousness within you,” he says.

Proper preparation, the correct dose and a safe environment are all helpful to reduce the chances of becoming frightened, he says, because the drug can be disorienting.

He says some patients on psychedelic substances might find themselves working through grief, guilt or confusion.

“But it can be profoundly therapeutic in a very rapid space of time,” he says.

He hopes furthering research at Johns Hopkins University will lead to legal, insurance-covered psilocybin therapy, specifically in palliative care, which would assist those nearing death in coping with anxiety and depression.

“In the work we’ve done with terminally ill people, those who have mystical experiences often claim loss of the fear of death,” he says.

The fear of death is displaced by curiosity spurred in the mind after using a psychedelic, he explains, which may allow them to live “much more fully” during the final period of their lives.

But his mission isn’t just to research. It’s also to educate against the misconceptions, inaccurate information and ignorance that have invaded the psychiatric world for years, he says.

He and his team are grasping onto this moment in time where the interest in psychedelics is swelling in the U.S. and parts of Europe, which he says is thanks to the dedication of both young and mid-career scientists enthusiastic about the field.

Decades into the “footnote” of his first psilocybin experience, Richards is watching the field he loves make an astounding comeback.

“I hope to stick around to see it flourish,” he says, “but I have no doubt that it will continue to expand whether I’m here or not.”

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaSerena McMahon and Francesca Paris adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.