New Hope For Treating Mental Illness in Utah

This op-ed originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah has a mental health problem. We boast the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of mental illness in the nation (29%) and above average suicide rates. What is being done to address this significant problem?

Many suffering from mental illness have found current options inadequate and are increasingly turning towards psychotherapeutics that are currently illegal under federal and state law.

When a Utah resident we will identify only as Julian suffered a major depressive episode, he did everything right. He met with a therapist, he turned to family for support but, even after several months, he didn’t feel like himself.

That’s when he used lysergic acid diethylamide, known as LSD. “I was stuck in patterns of behavior and thought that didn’t produce good outcomes,” Julian recently told me. “They facilitate anxiety and depressive feelings. When I used this medicine, I could change my mindset from an unhealthy one to a healthier one.”

Julian used LSD only three times over the course of three months and hasn’t felt depressed since. While Julian ultimately had a positive experience, he wishes a therapist could have been present to help him process what he was experiencing and to help him integrate his experience afterward.

Using LSD without supervision also raises safety concerns. When Julian ingested LSD, he said, “I had to do it at home and do it alone and take care of myself. It’s not something where you want to bring a friend in and put that burden on them. They’re not equipped to deal with something like that.”

Involving others in illegal activity is fraught with peril.

He also had to obtain LSD on the black market, with no guarantees of the purity or strength of what he received.

“I had to trust who I got it from and hope for the best. It created some anxiety for sure.”

LSD, like other psychotherapeutics, is a Schedule I substance — a classification reserved for substances with a high chance for abuse or addiction and no medical use. This classification is ludicrous because neither qualification is true.

An increasing body of scientific research has demonstrated that LSD and other psychotherapeutic medicines, including psilocybin, MDMA and ayahuasca, are powerful tools in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction. A single dose acts at a molecular level to increase neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change how it reacts to stimuli. Coupled with therapy, patients can more easily rewire their brains in a positive way, addressing the root causes of their illness and producing lasting change.

This is welcome news to many who have tried current pharmaceuticals with limited or no success. As psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi stated, “Most psychiatric medications are purely symptomatic, with no known or proven effect on the underlying disease. They are like 50 variations of aspirin, used for fever or headache, rather than drugs that treat the causes of fever or headache.”

And current pharmaceuticals come with the risk of serious side effects. Antidepressants can cause violence and suicide. Benzodiazepines, used to treat anxiety, are addictive and are frequently diverted and used recreationally. For many with mental illnesses, the risks simply aren’t worth the potential benefits.

By contrast, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and ayahuasca have few serious side effects. Perhaps this has to do with their relatively natural origins: LSD is a synthetic form of a naturally-occurring compound found in the ergot fungus, psilocybin is found in mushrooms and ayahuasca is made from boiling plants to produce a tea. All are non-addictive and have favorable safety ratios, meaning that the amount a person would have to ingest to overdose is many times more than the therapeutic amount.

Mental illness is part of the human condition, but a rapidly growing body of scientific evidence is proving that healing can be found in the form of naturally-occurring substances which have been used by humans for millennia.

Criminalizing this medicine pushes patients like Julian into the black market and punishes their effort to improve their mental health. Utah needs to improve its support for those with mental illness, and providing a legal route to use psychotherapeutics under medical supervision is an important step that would offer hope to many whose mental illness often leaves them hopeless.