Strict infection controls, quarantine, physical distancing, and national lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic have compounded the prevalence of mental health problems globally. The pandemic has worsened anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), sleep problems, and other psychological conditions among the public and healthcare workers.
Dealing effectively with the emotional fallout of the pandemic will require novel treatments for mental health issues. The authors of an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry argue that psychedelic drugs have proven their ability to reduce the anxiety experienced by terminally ill cancer patients as well as people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so they should be helpful for the new wave of mental health problems that accompanies the pandemic virus as it mutates from one iteration to the next.
Before COVID-19, mental health disorders were already prevalent, with an estimated 1 billion people worldwide suffering from a mental health disorder, depression and anxiety being the most common.
PTSD has been reported among hospitalized COVID-19 patients in China, and patients in intensive care units (ICU) the world over, with many of them still unwell months after discharge. Frontline healthcare workers are at increased risk of PTSD due to prolonged occupational stress. Research has found that individuals who remained healthy and only witnessed others getting sick or die, also showed signs of PTSD.
Scientists say psychedelics can be used to combat the mental health legacy of the pandemic
The writers of the Frontiers article quote examples of studies that have shown psychedelics help with long-term treatment-resistant depression, end-of-life anxiety, substance use disorder and PTSD. All of these conditions are synonymous with reactions to living through a life-threatening pandemic.
In addition, they point out, in many places worldwide psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies are becoming more regular, with people gaining access to them via compassionate use or “right-to-try” pathways. The Israeli government approved MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in 2019, the FDA approved an Expanded Access program, and Switzerland has permitted compassionate use of MDMA and LSD since 2014. In Canada, the federal government has approved a number of applications to use psilocybin for existential distress.
As the pandemic continues to grind along, experiences of disconnection and existential distress are bound to intensify. The one outstanding aspect of treatment with psychedelic drugs like psilocybin has been the mystical experiences that accompany the treatment and the apparent outcome of these intense experiences. These mystical incidents are poorly understood, but they nonetheless seem to have life-changing effects on those treated with psychedelics. These tend to be emotionally intense and deeply meaningful experiences. The results are invariably a change of mind and a long-lasting, more positive perspective. The writers report that ‘’Approximately 70 – 90% of participants across clinical trials rated their psilocybin experience among the top five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their entire lives.’’
The ability of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to help people overcome paralyzing depression, anxiety and substance abuse cannot be ignored. These substances hold the potential to bring about lasting change in how a person perceives the world and their place in it. It’s a route worth exploring and could alleviate the mental health burden worsened by COVID-19 across the globe.