In addition to the threat to physical health COVID-19 poses, the psychological impact of the pandemic has worsened mental health worldwide. Coping with the emotional fallout of the current crisis will require novel mental health treatment options – and the authors of a new article in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry say that psychedelic drugs may provide the answer.
Interest in the therapeutic effects of psychedelics is currently at an all-time high, with a wealth of research indicating the potential of these substances to alleviate depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. Most notably, psilocybin – the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms – has displayed a remarkable capacity to alleviate major depressive disorder in patients that had not responded to other therapies.
Other studies have indicated that the drug also reduces existential fear in terminal cancer patients, helping them overcome stress and trauma and come to terms with the idea of dying. Meanwhile, MDMA is currently being investigated as a potential treatment for PTSD, and is widely expected to become an approved medication for the condition in the near future.
Though not technically a psychedelic drug, MDMA does produce certain effects that are associated with psychedelics. A recent phase III clinical trial indicated that two-thirds of PTSD patients no longer met the criteria for diagnosis two months after receiving MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
Based on this evidence, a growing number of researchers are now calling for these drugs to be incorporated into long-term strategies for dealing with the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, scientists at the University of Washington are currently preparing to conduct a trial of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for frontline healthcare workers experiencing COVID-related stress.
This trial was partially inspired by a recent survey of US healthcare workers – published in The Lancet’s EClinical Medicine – 61 percent of whom reported fear of exposure to the virus while a further 38 percent claimed to be suffering from anxiety or depression. Moreover, statistics from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that since the beginning of the pandemic, the proportion of US adults experiencing depression or anxiety has risen from 11 percent to 42 percent.
Elsewhere, studies have indicated that 96.2 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in China show clinical signs of PTSD. Another survey of over 1,000 people from five countries revealed that many people who haven’t even contracted the virus appear to be suffering from PTSD, predominantly due to the fear and stress of living through a pandemic.
Despite the fact that the authors of the latest opinion piece are all associated with psychedelic research and development companies and therefore have certain conflicts of interest, they are far from alone in their call for access to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to be expanded.
“The legacy of mental health problems that will be left behind by COVID-19 incites innovative solutions to address rising rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety, addictions, and social disconnection,” the authors write. “As such, we would be remiss not to consider a novel approach with anti-depressive, anxiolytic, and antiaddictive potential that may also foster a sense of social and environmental connectedness, known as psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy”.