Can Psychedelic Drugs Treat Mental Illness? One Grad Student’s Quest to Find Out
Having served in the US Marine Corps for more than 4 years, Ty Weber witnessed many of his fellow leathernecks suffer from PTSD, anxiety, and depression both during active duty and when they returned to civilian life.
After being discharged and completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Chico State in 2020, Weber began thinking about how the mental health services industry isn’t meeting the needs of veterans—or many other populations.
“We have become over-reliant on the western pharmaceutical approach, which is to prescribe prescription drugs as a knee-jerk solution. These types of drugs often only mask the problem and can have severe side effects, becoming less effective over time,” Weber said.
Now pursuing a Master of Science degree in the Marriage and Family Therapy program, Weber is researching whether psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, ketamine, and peyote can create lasting positive effects when it comes to treating mental health. And he is asking for the campus community’s help in gathering data.
Weber is focused on retrospective research, which means he is only collecting data from participants’ past psychedelic experiences. The anonymous online survey will identify the medical and lifestyle histories of participants, including an examination of how their psychedelic experiences may have impacted the processing of past events, trauma, and meaning-making.
It’s a complex study that asks participants whether they agree or disagree with statements like:
- After using psychedelics, my memories became like stories that help me understand my identity.
- Psychedelics help me understand how my life experiences are associated with one another.
- Things that have happened over the course of my life are meaningfully tied together after a psychedelic experience.
“The latest research suggests that psychedelics allow different areas of the brain to communicate in ways that it ordinarily does not do, breaking out of the default mode network,” Weber explains. “The fear of addressing those so-called demons seems to lessen when areas in the brain, like the amygdala, exhibit lower levels of brain activity from psychedelic use. As a result, patients’ courage and ability to process traumatic events increases, leading to greater introspection and emotional breakthroughs.”
Weber says the amazing thing about psychedelics is that they have transdiagnostic healing properties that can address multiple disorders at the same time with long-lasting therapeutic effects and significantly increase the remission of disorders. He wants to know if the experiences of real people are matching the current research.
It’s important to note that Weber is referring to the medicinal use of psychedelic drugs administered in measured doses under the supervision of licensed medical professionals. Using the same drugs recreationally or without a prescription to manage mental health issues is not only illegal, but potentially dangerous. Weber adds that psychedelics may exacerbate some mental health issues, resulting in permanent adverse effects.
The use of psychedelics as medicine is not new (the word “psychedelic” derives from Greek and literally means “mind made visible”). Indigenous cultures from around the world have used mushrooms (psilocybin), peyote, and ayahuasca as medicinal therapy for centuries. And, psychedelics were studied in the early part of the 20th century as therapeutics for addiction, depression, anxiety until 1970 when US Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified LSD along with several other hallucinogens as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
Weber and his mentor, psychology professor Alexander Wong, are excited that institutions like Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, and University of California, Berkeley, among others, have been actively studying the potential benefits of psychedelics. And while Chico State doesn’t have the facilities to run this active type of research, they are excited about what data the survey will bring in.
“To say that psychedelics are potentially helpful in the mental health field is such a surface-level proclamation,” said Wong. “What we really want to do is begin gathering data about what types of substances show promise with certain types of conditions. Ty’s survey is designed to begin gathering that data.”
“This sort of data is important because research is increasingly suggesting the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic use, and that a lot of these benefits come from changes in how we experience ourselves, our memories, who we are, the meaning of our life,” Wong continued. “Many people report these experiences as being amongst the most profound and paradigm-shifting experiences they have. Given this background, research needs to continue exploring the mechanisms of how this works, for who, why, and when.”
Weber also noted there is industry-wide urgency to conduct such research because psychedelics, like MDMA, have been granted a “breakthrough” designation by the FDA, relaxing some of the strict Schedule I restrictions of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. Researchers must demonstrate some significant data by the end of phase 2 research for treatment-resistant disorders, terminal illnesses, or severe life-threatening conditions.
In addition to using this study to complete his thesis, Weber is looking toward the future of the mental health industry where therapists can encourage psychedelics in an appropriate setting and guide their patients through the experience.
He’s also hoping that psychedelics can lead to a decrease in the prescribing of prescription drugs to treat common mental health issues like depression and anxiety. And, as he plans his own career—he’d like to earn a PhD and become a practicing psychologist so he can help “heal people”—he thinks about his fellow military veterans who are looking for help.
“There’s no doubt this is a population who will help push this research forward, and I think it can be beneficial for them and the mental health industry,” Weber said.