The psychedelic medicines MDMA and psilocybin have shown exceptional promise in treating depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. These are both major risk factors for veteran suicide and the ability to improve these conditions holds promise for reducing the alarmingly high rate of suicide among America’s military heroes. Something that we are also concerned about is the effect of psychedelics on how people feel, deal with life, and cope with stress on a daily basis. In other words, do psychedelics improve mental health?
What Is Mental Health?
The CDC says that mental health encompasses psychological, emotional, and social well-being. Mental health determines how we feel, think, and act. Just as importantly mental health helps determine how people relate to others, handle stress, and make healthy choices. Good mental health is important at all stages of life. It is especially important when we face difficult situations. It is important to realize that the lack of good mental health is not synonymous with mental illness. Also, there are many people who suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses whose sense of social, mental, and physical well-being is good much of the time.
Effects of Psychedelic Medicines on Mental Health
We know from recent research that very targeted used of MDMA and psilocybin along with coaching or psychotherapy are more effective in treating clinical depression and PTSD than standard antidepressants. However, these studies do not address the broader context of mental health over the long term. Other researchers have looked at “naturalistic psychedelic” use over a longer term and its effects on emotional well-being, anxiety, and chronic depression. What they discovered is that with as few as one use of a psychedelic, people report an improved sense of well-being, less anxiety, and a more positive outlook on life. The data collected shows that these benefits to emotional well-being improve with increased use of psychedelics up to a point and then the benefits reach a plateau.
Because this study evaluated the use of psychedelics in uncontrolled environments, we are not surprised that of those who were interviewed, 13 % reported at least one adverse reaction. “Street” versions of psychedelics do not have adequately controlled doses and all too often contain other drugs or contaminants which may, in fact, be dangerous. That having been said, the long term effects of psychedelic use on mental health appear to be beneficial.
Psychedelics Offer a Bigger “Bang for the Buck”
Many of the biochemical effects of psychedelics can be experienced with newer antidepressants. However, the effects of antidepressants endure while the medicine is in a person’s system and then wear off. Unlike with antidepressants, the effects of taking a single dose of a psychedelic can endure for years. From a lay person’s perspective it would appear that standard antidepressants generally work to suppress negative emotions while psychedelics work at a more basic level in the brain to change emotions over a much longer term. Not only do psychedelics seem to offer more effective treatment in improving long term mental health. They do so much more economically than when people use antidepressants.
Psychedelics Enhance Resilience
Good mental health is not just feeling happy most of the time. It comprises the ability to cope when life is difficult. It comprises resilience in the face of defeat. Surveys of people who have used psychedelics over the years indicate the these medicines do, in fact, give people both a positive outlook during normal times and the ability to cope with life when it becomes difficult. This is important in that targeted clinical treatments are only used when a mental health or mental illness situation comes to light, is diagnosed, and receives professional treatment. The vast expanse of a human life encompasses a lot of situations that could benefit from help with generating good and strong mental health on a daily basis. Resilience, which is the ability to come back from defeats, cope with enduring difficult situations, appears to be enhanced by just one or two doses of psychedelics. The survey studies that have looked at this have not found that one psychedelic is better than another although this may well be the case and may be sorted out when prospective studies are applied to the issue of how psychedelics improve mental health.