Pandemic Tripping With Psychedelics

“Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will, ultimately, find just about everybody,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, told moderator J. Stephen Morrison during a “fireside chat” January 11 at the Center for Strategic International Studies. “Those who have been vaccinated and vaccinated and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death.”

So, that’s the new virus normal—it’s inevitable that Covid, in its current variant or in another variant yet to be discovered, will infect most of us, and will be with us for years to come.

Now what?

Two federally illegal classes of substances may play a role in dealing with Covid going forward. One substance works mostly on the body, one works mostly on the mind.

For example, there is a study by researchers at Oregon State University published in the Journal of Natural Products in October showing that cannabinoids “isolated or in hemp extracts, have the potential to prevent as well as treat infection by SARS-CoV-2 (Covid).” Cannabis may be able to block emerging variants, the study found.

That’s great news. But medical science is also turning to the other federally illegal class of substances that could just be the magic bullet for treating mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, even PTSD related to the Covid pandemic: psychedelics.

Covid and mental health

The CDC reported in mid-2020 that the coronavirus pandemic was associated with mental health challenges, including symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder that increased considerably in the United States during April through June of 2020. 

In CDC panel surveys conducted among adults 18 years and older in the U.S., 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (30.9%), symptoms of trauma- and stress or related disorder related to the pandemic (26.3%), and have started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to Covid (13.3%). 

The CDC survey also found that symptoms of anxiety disorder were approximately three times higher in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and the prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%).

And then there’s this: Patients with a recent diagnosis of a mental disorder had a significantly increased risk for Covid infection, according to a research report in the journal of the World Psychiatric Association.

Psychedelics to the rescue

A study in November 2021 from the Berlin Institute of Health looked into the effect of psychedelics used during the pandemic, including the settings in which people use psychedelics, the motives of usage, and the subjective quality of psychedelic experiences. The study found that the top three reasons why participants chose to use psychedelic substances in the last 4 weeks during the pandemic were (1) pleasure (2) self-awareness (3) spiritual or personal development.

Participants were asked to rate settings and motives of psychedelic substance use before the pandemic, and in the last 4 weeks during the pandemic, as well as changes in psychedelic experiences. 

Participants reportedly took one kind of a variety of psychedelics, that included either LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, mescaline, or DMT (LSD and psilocybin were most common).

During the pandemic, participants used psychedelics significantly less often in settings that were outside their homes. Participants consumed psychedelics less out of curiosity, to celebrate, or because friends took it, and more out of boredom.

Two-thirds of participants who used psychedelics during the pandemic claimed that psychedelics had helped them to deal better with the pandemic at least slightly. “To our surprise.. most participants did not report an increase in challenging psychedelic experiences when compared to the time before the pandemic,” study researchers concluded. “On the contrary, an increase in feelings of love and compassion for themselves, feelings of love and compassion for others, feelings of connectedness with nature, feelings of solidarity with people around them, and deep insights about the world during psychedelic experiences, were reported by up to one-third of participants, along with an increase in ego dissolution, pleasant feelings in the days after ingestion (“afterglow”), spiritual experiences, and visual effects.”

A deeper dive

Could psychedelics really be a mental health “cure-all” during a global pandemic that was—and still is—killing thousands of people each day? Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers discovered that two doses of psilocybin, given with supportive psychotherapy, produced rapid and large reductions in just the sort of depression symptoms many people were feeling from dealing with the pandemic for almost two years now. 

That work has served to inspire a small study at the University of Washington School of Medicine about whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety that front-line clinicians developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For the study, all participants will have two 90-minute counseling sessions to build trust with therapists and to learn what to expect during the psychedelic experience. On the third visit, test-cohort participants will receive a dose of synthesized, pure psilocybin, equivalent to about 3 grams of dried mushrooms. That session will be guided by two therapists and is expected to last four hours or more. 

Dr. Anthony Back, the lead investigator on the study, suggested that psilocybin uniquely enables psychological exploration. “It makes your brain more plastic and your beliefs and desires less rigid,” he said. “It can allow people to break up habitual cycles of thoughts and beliefs that might cause their sadness and depression.”

The Usona Institute is providing the psilocybin for the trial, and Cybin is funding the training for clinicians who will be using Embark, Cybin’s model of psychedelic-assisted therapy.

It appears that psychedelics research is accelerating because of Covid, fueling the psychedelics renaissance that may make psychedelics a more credible, and more convincing, therapeutic solution for various mental health issues.

According to an article in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, while at a relatively early stage of clinical development, “psilocybin therapy has the potential to play an important therapeutic role for various psychiatric disorders in post-Covid clinical psychiatry.”

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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