The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives in so many ways. From endless lockdowns to vaccine passports, our lives have been forever impacted by this obnoxious virus that doesn’t seem to want to go away. However, boredom and an inactive social life aren’t the only consequences of social distancing. This pandemic has also significantly impacted our mental health. Studies have shown an increase in people reporting psychological distress during the pandemic. COVID-19’s fallout on on mental health and well-being is expected to last beyond the pandemic’s formal ending.
But the news is not all bad. The COVID-19 crisis has allowed for the exploration of new areas of medical research. Alternative treatments for the pandemic’s effects on mental health are being investigated, with psychedelic-assisted therapy being one of them. Overall, pandemic mental health issues may be helping incentivize psychedelic research and coverage, which may in turn evolve mental health conversations in the end.
The Covid-19 Mental Health Crisis
An estimated one billion people worldwide suffer from a mental health disorder. The two most common disorders, depression and anxiety, cost the global economy around US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity. For those with mental health illnesses, stigma and restricted treatment alternatives have resulted in significant unmet needs.
While we might all have anecdotal evidence of how the global pandemic affected our mental health, clinical data is starting to emerge. For example, research involving 714 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in China revealed that around 96% of them experienced PTSD symptoms.
Furthermore, studies analyzing the long-term clinical outcomes in survivors of severe acute respiratory syndrome show high rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety even months after discharge. Unsurprisingly, similar rates are observed in severe COVID-19 infection survivors. Frontline healthcare workers were particularly susceptible to similarly negative effects and outcomes due to occupational stress, increasing the risk of PTSD and suicidality.
Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for frontline workers is already being implemented in the form of several pilot programs in an effort to address the anxiety, trauma, and burnout of the past two years.
It is important to note that pandemic mental disorders are not limited to those directly dealing with COVID-19. It affected us all, and research supports this claim. A study conducted in Australia showed that PTSD symptoms were observed among people who had only been exposed to the virus indirectly, by witnessing it via the media or by feeling anxiety related to the threat of death or disease. Finally, data also indicates increased use of alcohol and other substances in response to all the stress and negative emotions.
Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy for Depression and Anxiety
There is evidence suggesting that psychedelic-assisted therapy can promote long-lasting relief from depressive symptoms. A randomized clinical trial conducted by Johns Hopkins University and published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2020 aimed to study the effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy on people diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
This trial involved 24 adults not currently using antidepressant medications. They were later randomized to either an immediate treatment condition group or a delayed treatment condition group, meaning that participants were randomized to begin the psilocybin treatment immediately or after an eight-week delay. Two psilocybin sessions (session 1: 20 mg/70 kg; session 2: 30 mg/70 kg) were administered in conjunction with psychotherapy. Out of the participants, the 15 who received immediate psilocybin-assisted therapy showed improvement in depression severity through the one-month follow-up.
An older study conducted by Imperial College London in 2017 used fMRI technology to understand the effects of psilocybin on treatment-resistant depression. Nineteen patients with diagnoses of treatment-resistant depression were given a single dose of psilocybin, which produced antidepressant effects that lasted over time. Half of the participants completely ceased showing symptoms of depression and experienced changes in their brain activity that lasted about five weeks.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to intensify feelings of existential distress, researchers are looking into taming the massive mental health crisis that has already started. Aside from meditation or mindfulness, experts are also starting to discuss psychedelic-assisted treatment of the post-COVID blues.
While there is no specific data regarding the use of psychedelic-assisted therapy for COVID-19 mental health-related problems yet, the conversation has begun. An opinion article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry and written by researchers from the University of British Columbia stated that the rising rates of pandemic-related stress require innovative strategies.
While psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is not a quick fix, the therapeutic use of psychedelics could be one of the most promising alternatives. The researchers note that the pandemic highlights long-standing mental health challenges while also presenting an opportunity to develop promising new therapeutic approaches. Widely and commonly prescribed psychiatric medications such as antidepressants are ineffective for many patients. Aside from limited efficacy and unwanted side effects, there is a shortage of mental health professionals, which may prevent many from seeking health or receiving timely consultations.
Combined, these factors present an opportunity for alternative treatment options. For instance, a 2020 study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University showed that two doses of psilocybin produced quick and significant reductions in depressive symptoms, with most participants showing improvement and half of the study participants achieving full remission. Similar studies have found promise in psychedelics being used to treat the conditions that can be treatment-resistant, such as addiction, OCD and end-of-life anxiety.
There are no studies that are specific to post-pandemic mental health problems, but Ismail L. Ali, JD, the acting director of Policy and Advocacy at MAPS believes that research will follow soon enough.
“There aren’t that many families that haven’t been affected by addiction and suicide, depression, or something similar,” Ali said in an interview with the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC). “In general, there was already an openness that was emerging prior to COVID-19. The pandemic really put everything in relief, because you suddenly have this whole new class of people who have hard jobs as health care professionals already and are suddenly experiencing pretty severe trauma and burnout at a level that [some] have never seen before.”
According to him, this increased awareness will inspire a push towards more research regarding alternative treatment options, such as psychedelic-assisted therapy. However, he emphasizes that the big question is how quickly can that research move. There is still a stigma surrounding these substances and action needs to be taken quickly.
Practical Use of Psychedelics to Treat Post-Pandemic Mental Health Issues
So, could psychedelic-assisted therapy cure our post-pandemic depression or anxiety? Maybe. It is still too early to reach a conclusion, after all, we’re still going through this pandemic. While studies that are specific to this particular problem are needed, it is safe to say that this unprecedented problem requires a novel solution.
New alternatives are needed due to the limitations of existing treatment options. In the middle of this growing need for enhanced mental health services in the wake of COVID-19, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy could represent a promising breakthrough treatment. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has the potential to empower patients by promoting self-reflection, which may help to facilitate meaningful and lasting benefits.