Sunday, July 14, 2024

Psychedelic Therapy: History, Availability, and Where to Find It


Psychedelic therapy might seem like the latest trend in psychiatric treatment. However, not only was this kind of therapy commonly used in the mid-20th century after the discovery of LSD in 1943, but psychotropic substances have been used in therapeutic and spiritual practices for thousands of years within the context of  indigenous cultures. 

So where do you get psychedelic therapy? Psychedelic therapy can be obtained legally either through scientific trials or through psychedelic retreats. In psychedelic therapy, scientists or credentialed professionals administer psychedelic drugs in controlled doses along with talk therapy, while most psychedelic retreats are treated more as a spiritual exercise. 

While legal access to psychedelics can be somewhat limited in the United States, there are areas around the world where psychedelics can be safely and legally used to aid in both psychiatric improvement and spiritual development. Read on to find out more about psychedelic therapy and where you can participate in psychedelic clinical trials. 

History of Psychedelic Therapy

Modern psychedelic therapy has only begun to regain medical credibility after being discredited in the 1970s in the wake of the Controlled Substances Act, but psychedelics have been used by humankind for millennia as a way to alter consciousness and facilitate psychological insight in ground-breaking ways. 

Prior to 1943, humans pursued psychedelic therapy through the use of natural psychotropic botanicals such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, San Pedro, and Salvia divinorum. These plants are known to have entheogenic or naturally occurring psychedelic properties. These explorations occurred in the context of indigenous rituals and spiritual ceremonies.

Psychedelic Therapy in the 20th Century

In 1943, Albert Hofmann discovered the chemical makeup for LSD, a chemical that became widely used in both medical research and the counterculture of the 1960s.

After the creation of LSD, scientists and medical doctors jumped at the chance to test the therapeutic properties of these mind-blowing substances. From the 1940s through the early 1960s, hundreds of research papers were published  on the effects and properties of LSD and other psychedelic substances. 

However, due to the proliferation of psychedelic drugs in the counterculture movement and the politically motivated stigmatization of drug use,  there was a crackdown on scientific studies involving psychedelics in the 1960s. While in many places psychedelics such as LSD were banned outright, illegal scientific trials were still conducted on psychedelics during this period of prohibition.  

The Controlled Substances Act (passed in the United States in 1970) put an indefinite halt on all psychedelic medical trials and scientific studies in the United States. Despite the fact that the decision was widely denounced in the scientific community, psychedelics such as LSD were deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value and were scheduled as an illegal Class I controlled substance. 

Because of the measures laid out in the Controlled Substances Act, almost all official medical trials involving psychedelic therapy had been discontinued by the early 1980s. 

Psychedelic Therapy in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, one recent major shift in US culture has significantly undermined the Controlled Substances Act in popular culture: the legalization of cannabis for both recreation and medicine.

As cannabis has been granted renewed legality and has been increasingly recognized for its medicinal value, scientists have also begun to look back into the psychedelic therapy of the seventies to determine the role of psychedelic therapy in modern culture. 

Modernizing protocols, meticulous screening, and the incorporation of talk therapy have greatly improved the therapeutic outcomes and reliability of psychedelic therapies. As the counterculture stigma around the use of  psychedelics is slowly receding (microdosing psilocybin has become Silicon Valley’s new productivity hack) scientists and doctors feel that they have a new license to explore the medicinal and psychiatric value of these substances in a controlled setting. 

What Psychiatric Illnesses and Neurological Issues Can Psychedelic Therapy Treat?

Psychedelic therapy is currently being explored in the treatment of a variety of mental health issues. Psychedelics have been especially promising in the field of treating complex psychiatric diseases with deep-set psychological triggers, such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction

Here are some of the issues that are commonly researched in conjunction with psychedelic therapy:

  • Depression: As recently as the autumn of 2019, the FDA has lauded psychoactive psilocybin, the substance found in “magic mushrooms”, as an effective treatment for major depressive disorders that are resistant to other forms of treatment. In fact, current psychedelic therapy involving psilocybin and depression is so promising that it has been designated as a “breakthrough treatment” by the FDA twice in the same year in response to new studies.
  • Anxiety: There have been several medical trials launched for the use of psilocybin in treatment for both anxiety and depression. In helping patients feel a deeper connection to the world around them, a psychedelic experience has been shown to alleviate obsessive thought processes like those that occur in anxious and depressive states.
  • Cluster headaches: Most of the research into psychedelics involves their use in the alleviation of mental conditions, but psilocybin and LSD have also shown promise in providing relief to sufferers of cluster headaches. Cluster headaches are similar to migraines except more frequent and more painful, and psilocybin has been shown to be one of the few effective treatments.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): While ASD is most often associated with MDMA therapy, psilocybin has also been shown to be anecdotally therapeutic for autistic individuals. Because autism involves a lack of binding of serotonin in the brain, substances that increase serotonin uptake such as MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin can prove psychologically beneficial to those with ASD. People with autism also tend to suffer from treatment-resistant anxiety and depression, both of which psychedelics have also been shown to have success in treating.
  • Alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction issues: For medical researchers, one of the most promising aspects of psychedelics is their ability to essentially reset the brain’s neural pathways. Many scientists believe that this aspect of psychedelics can be used to aid in the radical rewiring of human behavior from addiction cessation to the cessation of other obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
  • Terminal illness: One of the benefits of psychedelic therapy identified in recent years is its benefit as palliative therapy in terminally ill patients. After a single psychedelic trip, most cancer patients reported feeling more at ease with their terminal circumstances as well as experiencing reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression in relation to their impending death.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD: Psilocybin and other psychedelics have been promising in the treatment of PTSD and complex PTSD, both disorders which involve high degrees of anxiety and depression along with other complicated psychiatric symptoms. 

Since the FDA declared psilocybin a ‘breakthrough drug’ in the treatment of complex psychiatric illnesses, the door is now open for researchers to test their theories on a wide variety of practical applications for psychedelic therapy. 

What’s the Difference Between Psychedelic Therapy and a Psychedelic Retreat?

Both psychedelic therapy and psychedelic retreats are pursued as legitimate methods for taking psychedelics therapeutically in a controlled setting, but the two can differ greatly in their practices and underlying motivations. 

Psychedelic Therapy

Modern psychedelic therapy is what we would consider either working one-on-one with a therapist (or therapist dyad) specializing in the combined use of psychedelics and talk or somatic therapy, or in formal medical trials, usually involving a placebo control group and a double-blind study. These medical trials are shaping the future of psychedelics as legal and legitimate forms of medicine in psychiatry and other practical medical applications. 

Outside of medical trials, underground therapists offer their services to psychedelic users in discrete, private settings. Integration therapists offer psychedelic therapy after the psychedelic experience, allowing them to practice above ground.

Psychedelic Retreats

Psychedelic retreats tend to focus more on the spiritual and entheogenic properties of psychedelics. Those who take psychedelics at a psychedelic retreat are often interested in exploring spirituality and personal development or seeking what is known as a “mystical experience”. 

Psychedelic retreats may involve traveling to a third world country where indigenous people still use entheogenic substances such as San Pedro or ayahuasca and ingesting these substances in a ritualistic manner. Ayahuasca retreats have gained popularity and can be found in the following countries: 

  • Costa Rica
  • Ecuador
  • Brazil
  • Columbia
  • Peru

Ayahuasca retreats have become popular not just as a form of psychedelic therapy, but also as a form of cultural tourism. Unfortunately, approaching an ayahuasca retreat as a tourist, rather than a sincere seeker, can lead to negative experience, as ayahuasca ceremonies can be extremely intense and demanding. It is strongly recommended to approach these ceremonies with respect and a genuine intention for healing, rather than as a “drug tourism” event.

While not as well-known as ayahuasca retreats, psilocybin retreats are becoming increasingly popular in the few countries where this drug has been legalized. As of 2020, psilocybin retreats can be found in the following countries: 

  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • The Netherlands (truffles)

Other psychedelics are available at retreats including 5-MeO-DMT (a powerful psychedelic found in some plants and animals, and also manufactured synthetically), and San Pedro cactus (huachuma). 

It’s important to note that, even in countries where these psychedelic retreats are permitted, it is an important requirement that sessions be undertaken and observed by traditional healers and other entheogenic professionals who are very familiar with the effects of the substance and how to mitigate risks. Availability of integration services is an important consideration when choosing a retreat.

You can find detailed reviews of psychedelic retreats in Psychedelic Experience’s comprehensive directory, as well as our guide to choosing a safe retreat

Advantages and Disadvantages of Psychedelic Therapy

When trying to decide between pursuing psychedelic therapy or psychedelic retreats, it’s important to keep in mind your motivations and goals. Whether you are seeking spiritual exploration or to overcome an addiction, it is crucial to find therapy or a retreat that is well-suited to your intention, and has experience in this area. 

However, if you want to get medically-monitored treatment for a severe and under-researched disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or depression, psychedelic therapy is probably a better option. These are the benefits associated with psychedelic therapy: 

  • Controlled setting: Going on a psychedelic retreat often involves spending a lot of money traveling to another country in a place you’re unfamiliar with, usually surrounded by people who speak a different language. For people who are attempting to use psychedelics to treat a complex psychiatric illness, this set of unpredictable variables can lead to a bad trip. Psychedelic therapy, on the other hand, is conducted in a controlled clinical environment.
  • Emphasis on medicine, not spirituality: Psychedelic retreats often (but not always) put their emphasis on spiritual development. While this is a worthy goal, those who would prefer to use psychedelics to treat a specific medical issue and don’t ascribe to a holistic model of disease may find themselves at a disadvantage in a psychedelic retreat setting. Psychedelic therapy is often more focused on the medicinal properties of psychedelics, rather than their spiritual benefits.
  • Professional oversight by medical professionals: Psychedelic retreats are often run by people without medical credentials, while psychedelic therapy is usually only performed by the top minds in the psychiatric field. This is especially true since scientists and therapists are only now getting renewed permission to pursue psychedelic research in the medical and psychiatric fields.
  • Furthering the field of legitimate psychedelic medicine. Since there is little well-controlled modern research on the use of psychedelics in medical settings, every test study helps further the field and is vital to psychedelic advocacy as a legitimate psychiatric and medical treatment. For those who are suffering from lifelong chronic conditions, such as PTSD and severe depression, these kinds of studies can ultimately change their lives and the lives of others afflicted by these conditions in a positive way. 

There are some benefits of psychedelic therapy, but there are also some major disadvantages. Here are some of the drawbacks of pursuing psychedelic therapy: 

  • Limited availability: There are currently limited ongoing psychedelic therapy trials being performed in regions like the US, Europe, and Brazil, and this makes accessibility to trials very difficult to obtain. Even if a person meets the requirements to be a suitable candidate, geographic limitations are usually a problem.
  • Introduction of placebo: Most of the more legitimate psychedelic therapy trials are double-blind placebo studies. This means that even if you do manage to get into a psychedelic therapy trial, you may end up not getting access to real psychedelic treatment.
  • Restricted by scientific dosage: As opposed to individualized use, participants in a psychedelic therapy trial are required to take a specific dosage of the drug that may or may not be effective for them based on their individual makeup—due to the rules surrounding these trials, dosages typically cannot be altered mid-course to induce the intended effect.
  • Restricted treatments: Unlike psychedelic retreats, where participants are free to work with any personal psychological trauma that comes up, psychedelic therapy is often geared towards a specific condition. For example, a psychedelic trial may test the effectiveness of psilocybin in treating depression specifically, or MDMA for treating social anxiety. 

The growing number of psychedelic therapy trials is encouraging for those who see psychedelics as a promising frontier in psychiatric medicine, but for those who want to participate in a psychedelic trial, the opportunities are still few and far between.  

Advantages and Disadvantages of Psychedelic Retreats

Psychedelic retreats are often more accessible to the average person than a formal psychedelic therapy or a medical trial, but these retreats aren’t for everyone. That being said, psychedelic retreats can be a useful tool for people open to pursuing therapeutic benefits of psychedelics outside of a formal medical setting. 

Here are some of the advantages of a psychedelic retreat: 

  • Can be found across the world: Unlike formal psychedelic therapy trials, which are few and far between, there are increasing numbers of psychedelic retreats in Europe and South America that are taking advantage of the legality of psychedelics in those regions to promote their use as aids for personal development and spiritual growth.
  • Exposure to indigenous cultures: Getting to work with traditional healers that have been using specific psychoactive substances for generations before you can be a humbling, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people who are wanting to experience psychedelic therapy for its spiritual value.
  • Supportive, safe environment for journeying: While traveling across the world for a psychedelic journey can be a bewildering experience for some novice adventurers, a psychedelic retreat can offer experienced, professional guides who have been leading people through their psychedelic experiences for decades. This can be especially important when taking psychedelics that are almost exclusively used in shamanistic settings, such as ayahuasca.
  • Spiritual guidance: Most people travel to psychedelic retreats to use psychedelic substances as catalysts for spiritual development. For people who are experienced with psychedelics and are confident in their ability to navigate their journey, powerful psychedelics, like ayahuasca, can facilitate an empowering spiritual experience.

However, even though psychedelic retreats can be a great way for people to experience psychedelics, there are some drawbacks to retreats too: 

  • Significant liability: Traveling to another country to take mind-altering plants or substances in the jungle comes with risks. Making the jaunt to a Brazilian rainforest to do ayahuasca can be the trip of a lifetime, but it also has the potential to go very wrong. Many of these areas lack both civil infrastructure and security, and many (especially in South America) are considered the territory of dangerous cartels. Becoming educated about the culture and territories you will be traveling in, as well as the resources that are available to you if you need help, is a bare minimum requirement if you are embarking on this type of journey.
  • Significant expense: Unless you already live in South America, it is likely that you’re going to be spending thousands of dollars to get to a retreat.
  • Lack of medical oversight: While ayahuasca retreats and other psychedelic retreats are often overseen by experienced professionals, most participants are forced to sign a waiver that frees those professionals from any legal responsibility regarding injury or death as a result of ingesting psychedelic substances. The truth is, not every participant knows they have a pre-existing psychiatric or medical condition until exposure to these powerful psychoactive substances reveals it.
  • No extended post-trip integration therapy. There are specialists available at ayahuasca retreats to “talk you through” your experience, but once you return to your home country, it can be hard to find ways to incorporate or integrate your experience into your daily life. Even psychedelic integration specialists often have limited experiences or exposure to exotic or native entheogenic substances, such as San Pedro or ayahuasca. It is important to scope out your local community for available integration support (e.g. integration circles, therapists, coaches) before you go. 

Whether a person decides to look into psychedelic clinical trials or psychedelic retreats as access points to legal psychedelic therapy, there are benefits and drawbacks to both types of psychedelic exposure from a treatment standpoint and much of the decision depends on your specific goals. 

Scientific Research into Psychedelic Therapy

There are currently dozens of scientific studies researching psychedelic therapy taking place across the world. These clinical trials can be a good option for some medical candidates who are trying to obtain psychedelics legally in order to treat a specific psychiatric or neurological illness. 

Many of these scientific research trials are limited by geographic location or other patient prerequisites related to the requirements of a formal study, so read over the research materials carefully before contacting a study for a possible candidacy. 

Due to the fact that the FDA fast-tracked psilocybin as a “breakthrough drug” with regards to the treatment of depression, anxiety, and other related psychiatric issues, most of the medical trials surrounding psychedelic therapy deal with psilocybin specifically. 

Here is a comprehensive list of upcoming and ongoing scientific research into psychedelic therapy:

Psychedelic Integration Specialists

Psychedelic integration specialists are therapists or coaches who are experienced with psychedelics and help people integrate their psychedelic experience after the journey has passed. These are people who are personally familiar with the effects of psychedelic drugs and their lasting influence. 

Because psychedelics are often easier to obtain illegally than legally, psychedelic integration specialists are available for those who want to reconcile a past psychedelic experience that they had either legally or illegally. Psychedelic integration specialists focus on preparation and  harm reduction methods to mitigate negative impacts as well as integration tools to foster psychological growth. 

For a list of psychedelic integration specialists, visit this directory at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). 

Psychedelic Counselors and Therapists

As the field of psychedelic studies opens back up, there are more and more positions for counselors and therapists to specialize in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy

Using a combination of psychedelic journeys and talk therapy, these therapists help their patients work through complex psychiatric conditions such as treatment-resistant depression, pervasive social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. 

While positions for psychedelic counselors and therapists are still relatively limited, this is a field of study that is gaining more and more traction. 

Psychedelic Therapy Is the Final Frontier for Psychiatry

Psychedelic therapy suffered significant setbacks in the latter half of the twentieth century as the result of its association with the politically-charged counterculture of the 1960. Now that the stigmas of the past are lifting, these remarkable substances are getting renewed scientific interest from legitimate sources, from John Hopkins and Yale University all the way up to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Access to psychedelic therapy is still limited, but this is a field that has plenty of room to grow.  It is the hope of many scientists and doctors that psychedelic therapy becomes as commonplace and legitimate as any other form of psychiatric medicine. 

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