More than half a century after the prohibition of LSD and magic mushrooms, scientists around the world are hailing Psychedelic drugs as a new treatment for mental health issues.
An increasing number of Australians are seeking out alternative forms of therapy to treat mental health, as the shortcomings of traditional anti-depressant medicines are leaving many without the proper assistance.
St Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne will be the location for Australia’s first clinical trial of a psychedelic substance, as end-stage cancer patients will be administered psilocybin to help alleviate end-of-life anxiety.
Psilocybin is the main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, widely known to be the safest recreational drug, but the far-reaching medicinal potential of this substance is only just being recognised in Australia.
Classic Psychedelics such as LSD, Psilocybin, mescaline and DMT all work to quiet the Default Mode Network within the brain, which is responsible for self-referential thought.
Dr Stephen Bright, Vice President of Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine (PRISM), is excited about the future of psychedelic research in Australia, ahead of the first legally sanctioned use.
“People with depression and OCD have been found that their default mode network is overactive because they’re ruminating and engaging in self talk… By turning the default mode network off… parts of the brain start cross talking that doesn’t usually communicate with each other.”
“That’s where the creativity and spiritual experience come from. Perhaps people with depression can see their situation from a completely different perspective… because those parts of the brain don’t normally connect the way they do when a person’s under the influence of a psychedelic.”
This process can help break the cycle of thinking that leads to conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety, as the “mystical experience” that arises can significantly alter an individual’s perceptions of the world.
“I think the mystical experience is really important because the deactivation or decoupling of the default mode network, which is measured by brain scanning and mystical experience by a questionnaire, correlates very well with people’s reduction of depressive symptomology.”
Since the banning of psychedelic substances in the 1970s, the decades of research into the benefits they hold for mental health issues has been slowly fading away, as a new form of treatment began its colossal rise.
Australia currently has the second highest rate of antidepressant prescriptions in the world, and Dr Bright sees the need for a “paradigm shift to move away from the expectation that there’s going to be a quick fix, and the expectation that we have a pill for every ill.”
Although it’s not the easiest treatment to undertake, lasting 10-12 weeks and “involving the person doing a lot of homework… personal reflection and introspection,” the potential outcomes are worth it in the eyes of scientists.
“Through this psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, the person is essentially cured of their illness so they don’t need to take their medication.”
Unlike traditional antidepressant medication, the substance itself isn’t the catalyst for change within a person, but rather the experiences and insights gained from the ‘trip.’
This notion was further explored by Stanislav Grof, whose work in LSD therapy before prohibition led him to find new ways to achieve a psychedelic state, without the aid of external substances.
Grof and his wife Christina developed Holotropic Breathwork™, a method of “holding space” in which a person achieves a subconscious or psychedelic state, which can bring its own mystical experiences.
Although this practice is still rare in Australia, Practitioner Lila Pesa has seen the potential for powerful change during her decade working with clients in Sydney.
“We can have an incredibly transcendent and heart opening, celestial experience, but we never know what the psyche is going to bring up to the surface for us to look at.”
The complex process is influenced by ancient cultures who, for centuries have used drumming, chanting and rhythmic breathing to enter a subconscious, spiritual state.
Pesa highlights the similarities between this experience and that of a psychedelic journey, “They’re very similar things in terms of where we actually go, and that’s basically to our collective unconscious or to our deeper layers of the psyche that absolutely unite us, it’s something that’s way beyond what our human mind can grasp.”
As this phenomenon gains traction worldwide, the demographic of participants spans a far wider scope than its yogic and meditative relatives of prana yama, asana and tantra.
“I tend to see a lot of people now that are from good families with good educations, but there’s something missing… They are seeking something more than just being a consumer in the world, getting a mortgage and a car and all the rest, really high functioning people that don’t necessarily have significant traumas or major issues.”
Far from an easy fix or a fun trip, “the sessions can be looking like a madness house, the person can be speaking in tongues, acting mad, crying, laughing, swearing, moving around.”
Among all the chaos and individualised journeying, Pesa stresses the importance of proper integration of these experiences, in order to retain the insights gained and utilise them in everyday life.
Participants are encouraged to talk about their experiences during the ‘share circle,’ however the details that transcend the realm of language are often expressed through artistic means.
“People are taking themselves in their deep inward space, and sitting with the art, whether it’s a collage or drawing or painting… drawing bypasses the cognitive and helps people find images or symbols or something that are kind of significant, maybe still not having a lot of sense, but at least it’s coming to this realm.”
Without proper integration and accompaniment during an intense psychedelic journey, certain individuals can be vulnerable to further psychological issues, including endless trips and psychosis.
“People come back to civilisation and have said, I actually struggle to live now because im really divided and I struggle to integrate those messages, insights, visions and things.”
This is where Pesa’s work is vital, building on her own experiences to guide her clients through a peaceful journey that brings forth positive outcomes and consequences.
Despite this, she laughs off labels of any modern, western type of Shamanism, seeing the experience as one that should be universally practiced, “I wish that I was rich and I could do it by donation and not charge at all, because to me I believe that people should have that space for free.”
“I look forward to the time when we could open a centre for Deep Self-Exploration where we could collectively offer and hold a safe space for people to experience the benefits of Holotropic Breathwork™, as well as many other practices… including therapeutic use of sacred medicine.”