When it comes to mental health treatment, psychedelics are increasingly in high demand. From MDMA to psilocybin, medical schools and major hospitals are launching centers to research how these hallucinogenic drugs may help combat things like depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Due to the Drug Enforcement Administration's Schedule I classification, most of them remain illegal and are considered to have no medical benefit (although Oregon legalized the use of therapeutic psilocybin in November). Use of the drugs, therefore, should technically be confined to clinical trials. But with growing evidence that they are helpful, some celebrities are opening out about using them — some in ways that experts say aren't necessarily safe.
In an episode of the podcast HypochondriActor this week, actress Kristen Bell told hosts Dr. Priyanka Wali and Sean Hayes that she recently experimented with psilocybin — a naturally occurring psychedelic derived from dry mushrooms — in order to address her depression.
"I was really interested in doing mushrooms, I really wanted to try psilocybin and feel what kind of doors opened and have kind of a trip that was my own," Bell said. "I am very lucky to be married to an ex-drug addict. Not only did he know where to get the stuff...that really nice organic quality mushroom and then he, um, babysat me."
Dax Shepard, Bell's husband as well as host of the podcast "Armchair Expert," seems to have done a good job of keeping watch over Bell, who called the experience "lovely." But experts caution against experimenting with the drug at home. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and director of the Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma Research, strongly recommends against following in Bell's footsteps.
"The nuanced message is that these are pretty safe compounds, but even with safe compounds, when they're used inappropriately, they can be very dangerous," Yehuda tells Yahoo Life. "Even aspirin can be an agent of suicide." Yehuda, who been studying trauma and its effects on the brain for 30 years, says researchers still aren't clear exactly what hallucinogenics like psilocybin do that helps things like depression and anxiety. But it may have something to do with an alternative reality.
"[One] thing we know about psychedelics is that — especially psilocybin — result in an altered state of consciousness, like a transpersonal state," says Yehuda. According to earlier research, a transpersonal experience is one in which "the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos." Current theories suggest that this state, as Yehuda puts it, acts as a "conduit to healing."
Given the powerful nature of the drug, in order to derive therapeutic benefits safely, Yehuda says that an expert should be there. "A lot of people talk about the process of facilitating someone during a [psychedelic] session as a midwife helping a woman give birth," she says. "[The woman], she's doing all the work, but she wouldn't be able to do it without the midwife. I mean...could you technically do it? I've seen that on TV. But I feel the same way about psychedelics — you want the midwife there."
Amazon sells books that propose ways to do it yourself, such as Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, but Yehuda says it's still best to have a trained professional there to guide the individual through difficult emotions — and ideally, as a part of a clinical trial. "You want somebody there while you're doing the hard work, someone who can really help you do it," says Yehuda. "I think the [midwife] model is one that people can really understand and relate to."
Overall, Yehuda says it's a very exciting time for psychedelic research. "What's very clear is that this is a new day for psychedelics. They're having a moment," she says. "And the question we have to ask ourselves is: Will we do the responsible work that we need to do in order to make treatments available to the people that can benefit from them and protect society from potential use that can cause harm? How are we going to thread that needle?"
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