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Exploring Medicinal & Therapeutic Treatments Using Psychedelics at SXSW Online

An overview of the SXSW Featured Session: Psychedelics for Therapeutics and Well-being.

During my coverage of SXSW Online 2022, I caught the featured session "Psychedelics for Therapeutics and Well-being." This session explored how modern research in psychedelics has shifted from the Timothy Leary “turn-on, tune-in, and drop-out” culture that defined the '60s into an evidence-based treatment for psychiatric diseases.

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How Psychedelics Can Alleviate Human Suffering

Roland Griffiths, Psychopharmacologist at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, offered a concise summary of the current state of psychedelics research. "I'm fond of saying that we know a lot that we didn't know in the past 15 years. But we're also astonishingly ignorant about basically what's going on here." The signal that seems to be the strongest regarding psilocybin research is in addressing treatment resistant depression. Also, there's been some recent studies exploring the use of psilocybin in treating addictions to substances such as cigarettes, cocaine, and alcohol. For a deeper dive into Dr. Griffiths' research on psychedelics and mental illness, check out his website.

Our common understanding of medications such as Prozac is that they normalize a chemical imbalance in the brain. But when addressing psychedelics, John Krystal, MD, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University, observed, "In this generation of medications we're talking about drugs that restore functional capacities and structural foundations for communication in the brain, and thereby produce a more profound and hopefully lasting change."

Rethinking the Role of Psychedelics in Achieving Enhanced Human Potential

Psychologist Rosalind Watts introduced her work from a nature based perspective using the acronym ACER (Accept, Connect, Embody, Restore). Using the analogy of a tree, Accept represents the roots of the tree and speaks to all the trauma and grief that's underneath and hidden within one's unconscious and subconscious mind. Connect are the branches growing towards meaning and light in the direction one wants to grow in. Embody is the trunk where the suffering at the roots becomes the meaning, direction, and value of the branches. And in Restore, one reconnects to the larger and expansive ecosystem of the planted similar to how a tree reconnects to the ecosystem of the forest.

Best Practices for Psychedelics Treatment

While summarizing the psychedelic therapy process -- preparation, session, and integration -- Dr. Watts' offered this caveat. "It's not just about the dose of the drug, it's also about the care and the container." Author Tim Ferriss' unsupervised experiences in psychedelics helped treat his depression, but they also made him see the need to have these experiences in more controlled settings.

In Dr. Watts' research with participants suffering from depression, she found two main themes emerged. The first was that people described going from disconnection to connection. Second, they went from avoidance of emotion to acceptance of emotion. Often participants felt destabilized, quite raw and still processing their traumas months after their psychedelic experience. If they had good integrative therapy afterwards, they were able to process all the emotions running through their body that were numbed but were now coming to the surface.

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Dr. Griffiths cited some positive results from a recent anorexia trial they conducted but added that's a different type of disorder than depression. "We have awful lot to learn about how these interventions can best be used and in which subpopulations they're the most efficacious."

Dr. Watts stressed the need to think about different types of psychedelics, doses, frequencies, and containers. "The clinical trials up until now have been very short term clinical intervention. Some people might benefit from group administration and more long-term therapy." She recommended individual therapy for working through one's own biography with what comes up afterwards, as well as the need for group and community support. "You need a community of people that know it is about in and through. In order to open ourselves up, it is about engaging with our pain and our emotions," Dr. Watts notes. In her estimation, they do not have nearly enough infrastructure for either individual or group interpretive therapies at the moment.

Using Psychedelics Recreationally

As the recreational use of psychedelics continues to rise, Griffiths predicted more deaths and suicides will be attributed to psychedelics due to people engaging in dangerous behaviors without adequate supervision. Another concern he noted is the precipitation of enduring psychotic illnesses in people who were already pre-disposed to diseases like schizophrenia.

When Ferriss pointed out he's encountered people who had debilitating psychedelic experiences in festival settings, Griffiths agreed this is a reality but added that not all who have such experiences end up with enduring negative effects. "One of the things they learn from this is if they stay and be with whatever it is they're encountering, it's going to change," Griffiths state Ed.

The Future of Psychedelics

The remaining panels on psychedelics were not available as part of SXSW Online 2022 (though the audio is available via the SXSW After Pass through April 17, 2022). A quick skim of these offerings point to the beginnings of much needed conversations surrounding the ethics of marketing a medicine that's been used ceremonially by indigenous cultures for millennia. A similar conversation transpired around cannabis, which has been a topic at SXSW for several years now. There commercialization seems to be gaining the upper hand as more states continue to legalize cannabis.

As a resident of Oregon, the first state to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for limited therapeutic use, I'm particularly concerned about the rise of psychedelic tourism. As evidenced by this article, even the local Portland media tend to ignore the contributions of those on the grassroots by focusing on the more glitzy touristy tale of those international companies promoting exclusive access to their exorbitantly priced retreats into inner space.

While the media may focus this rise of elitist psychedelic playgrounds, Oregon based organizations like the Alma Institute, Inner Trek, and The Plant Medicine Healing Alliance represent scrappy mission driven grassroots endeavors that seek to explore how to create a culture that provides equity and access to this natural healing medicine. That's the journey that I see having the most sustainable and holistic long-term impact of psychedelics as a tool to help people heal into their fully integrated selves. 

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