What if the cure to a lifetime of mental illness is really just a party drug from the 1980s?

Written by TL.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

Bloomberg podcast host, Michelle Fay Cortez, asks her audience “what if the cure to a lifetime of mental illness is really just a party drug from the 1980s?” She is referring to ecstasy, a psychedelic drug known as MDMA when in its purest form. Recently, many promising studies indicate that MDMA can be used in conjunction with therapy to treat mental illnesses like addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, treatment-resistant depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This process has been coined “psychedelic therapy” or “MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.”

How exactly does psychedelic therapy work? To explain this process, it is essential to first understand how trauma, the underlying cause of many psychiatric disorders, is currently treated. Today, we treat someone experiencing psychiatric disorders with a combination of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and more. Likewise, we also treat psychiatric disorders with a variety of psychotherapies where individuals discuss the traumatic experiences that led to their mental illnesses. However, it is essential to note that many psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD, are treatment-resistant. A victim of PTSD may see no improvements after taking medication, and they may be incapable of discussing their traumatic experiences during therapy: they may freeze up as soon as their traumas are referenced or simply refuse to participate in therapy to begin with.

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy solves many of these problems. Dr. Ben Sessa, a psychiatrist and proponent of psychedelic therapy, states in his TED Talk, “MDMA leads to an increase in positive moods and a decrease in depression and anxiety. The drug stimulates the patient, which motivates them to participate in therapy and, paradoxically, relaxes the patient which puts them into the optimal arousal zone where they can engage in psychedelic therapy.” MDMA is a suit of armor patients can wear as they explore and reflect on their trauma during therapy. A participant of MDMA-assisted therapy would expect roughly a dozen weekly sessions with two therapists, male and female, but they would only take MDMA during three of the twelve sessions. The patient’s physiology would be closely monitored.  

Understandably, one may wonder why a drug with such powerful effects is illegal. To begin, let’s take a moment to dive into the criminalization of psychedelic drugs. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was passed by the United States Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon. The act classified psychedelics as “Schedule 1:” a category for substances that have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Although the Nixon Administration claimed the CSA was established to protect Americans from the dangers of these drugs, Vox and others speculate Nixon had alternative motives: Nixon couldn’t make it illegal to be his political opponent, but he could criminalize the drugs they used. To illustrate, many opponents of both Nixon and the Vietnam War were hippies. The drugs of choice for many hippies were often magic mushrooms (psilocybin), acid (LSD), and ecstasy (MDMA). Again, Nixon couldn’t outlaw hippies, but he could outlaw these drugs in order to lead to the mass incarceration of this population.

However, as a result of recent social campaigns from organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the federal government has begun to relax their regulation on the research of MDMA. Today, MAPS actively researches the benefits and risks associated with MDMA-assisted therapy while simultaneously taking MDMA through the legal system in order to establish it as a prescription medicine. MAPS and other sources have released many promising studies related to this practice in recent years: in 2018, “28 people with chronic PTSD were randomized in a double-blind dose response comparison of two active doses (100 and 125 mg) with a low dose (40 mg) of MDMA administered during eight-hour psychotherapy sessions.” A year later, 76% of the participants no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PSTD. Likewise, additional studies have found promising results for another psychedelic, psilocybin. In 2016, Ross et al. found that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can reduce anxiety and depression related to life-threatening conditions, such as cancer.

In 2017, over 47,000 Americans committed suicide. Over 1,400,000 people attempted suicide. According to USA Today, suicide kills more U.S. troops than ISIL in the Middle East. The United States needs a psychedelic revolution. Dr. Ben Sessa states that “MDMA is as important for the future as the discovery of antibiotics for general medicine one hundred years ago.” MAPS Founder and Harvard Alumnus, Rick Doblin, Ph.D., anticipates that MDMA-assisted therapy will be legal in 2021. If Rick Doblin and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies succeed, Americans may live in a world where psychedelic therapy is common and some forms of mental illness are not.

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