Psychedelic drugs describe a class of substances which, when taken, can affect and alter the ways in which you think and how you perceive the world. For instance, psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” can induce vivid hallucinations and heightened self-awareness; MDMA, also known as ecstasy, can trigger a state of euphoria and feelings of love and empathy.
Although commonly taken for recreational purposes, the use and possession of MDMA and psilocybin, amongst other psychedelic drugs such as LSD, are in most countries either heavily restricted or prohibited outright.
However, a growing body of research is highlighting the clinical potential of certain illegal drugs in treating mental health conditions — and raising questions regarding the existing hostility and legal restrictions held against these substances.
In particular, research on illegal compounds such as psilocybin and MDMA have shown promise in treating a range of conditions from PTSD and clinical depression, to substance addiction and end-of-life anxiety.
Despite the clear and pressing need in Asia to address mental illness, however, the social stigma and institutional constraints which enshroud narcotics could be hindering advancements important to mental healthcare.
“In Asia, the stigma against psychedelics is so strong that few, if any, researchers have asked for government permission to explore their therapeutic potential,” says Brad Burge, the director of strategic communications at MAPS, a U.S. non-profit which advocates for MDMA research in psychotherapy.
However, Brian Russman, deputy clinical director of The Cabin Chiang Mai, a drug rehabilitation centre in Thailand, warns of potential dangers.
“There is little to no evidence that those substances in particular would be more effective than more traditional psychopharmacology, and they come with significant risk.”
“As there is no money in experimental or hallucinogenic drugs and it would be fairly unpopular from a political or public standpoint, I can’t see those type of drugs gaining much traction.” Mr Russman adds.
Yet, this is precisely why more research needs to be conducted — so the promise of psychedelic-assisted therapy can be fully explored.
“Since research suggests that [psychedelic therapies] only require a few sessions to be effective, [they] are likely to be much cheaper for treating serious mental illnesses,” says Mr Burge. “This economic imperative to explore psychedelic-assisted therapies may be the most convincing argument for getting funding and support from Asian nations.”
Indeed, mental healthcare in Asia stands to benefit substantially from new developments. Suicide rates in South Korea are the second highest in the world, and it is still the leading cause of death for Japanese men aged 22-44. In global wellbeing and happiness indexes, countries such as China, Japan and South Korea often rank poorly.
For instance, the 2017 World Happiness Report published by the United Nations found that contemporary well-being in China was similar or worse than that of levels in the 1990s — in spite of gargantuan economic gains.
Of the 145 countries surveyed in another report — the 2014 Gallup-Healthways Global Wellbeing Index — the social well-being of citizens in Singapore ranked 123, Japan 127, China 129 and South Korea 112.
If the medical utility of psychedelics prove to be true, it could usher in a new set of tools in the fight against mental illness — the benefits of which are obvious. And although much more research is still required, the signs are encouraging.
Psilocybin has been studied with positive results in reducing symptoms of major depression, such as in this study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, or this Johns Hopkins feasibility study which found psilocybin to offer patients relief from cancer-related depression and existential anxiety. The compound is also being researchedfor dealing with alcohol addiction.
In addition to cases of clinical depression, MDMA has also shown promise in numerous trials in treating those disturbed by severe trauma (PTSD), such as war veterans or rape victims. And a study conducted by MAPS is currently studying MDMA in relieving social anxiety in autistic adults.
But, the promise of a new class of therapies is ultimately redundant if it isn’t backed up by a wealth of evidence. And due to the taboo and illegality concerning drugs like psilocybin and MDMA, it is enormously difficult to obtain approval to carry out research on a mass-scale.
As such, most of the research conducted today involve small study groups, which just isn’t enough to satisfy standards required for clinical application. Should restrictions on using psychedelic substances (or other compounds) in research be lifted or eased, their possible medical uses could be fully explored.
Of course, drugs can be as much a disease as it is a potential for treatment. Addiction carries with it heavy social consequences, and the organized crime which surround the drug trade are factories of violence. Nevertheless, diseases of the mind weigh on society like rotting ulcers. Caring for the psychologically vulnerable and making a serious effort at supporting mental healthcare in Asia are issues that deserve attention, and it would be unwise to ignore such a promising area for research and investment.