This Christmas marks the second pandemic Christmas and depending on what timeline: mysterious new pneumonia-like illness identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 , we soberly accept, the third pandemic New Years the planet will be ringing in. With the way variants are mutating we have no way to know if this time next year people will be maskless and kissing unrestrained under the mistletoe without fear of contagion or pitting the vaxxed against the unvaxxed. A public health issue has become political not just in our country but in the civilized or what is becoming the uncivilized western world.
For some the change offered silver linings. This writer took a chance and quit a long time dayjob because I got a taste of working remotely. I could not go back to everyday under a microscope. For others worldwide tragedies upon unprecedented challenges to public health, food systems, and the world of work left people in the face of an existential threat. And for all the persistent physical health issues for people suffering from “long COVID there is another health epidemic on the rise: how the pandemic is affecting our brains.
“In a new report, Yale researchers examine how the pandemic is affecting our brains — in particular the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is involved in decision making, impulse control, and emotional regulation.”
After the first year of the pandemic researchers at Boston College confirmed anecdotal evidence that the spread of the virus was a strain on mental health. Increases in depression and anxiety were six times higher in November 2020 than in 2019 – according to a report in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine. The impact is more severe among young adults aged 18-29 with increased rates of depression and anxiety.
Economic challenges, social isolation, and protracted grief have all contributed to the stark numbers: about 1 in 4 American adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder throughout the pandemic, while health care workers have faced months-long exposure to trauma induced by surges of illness and death.
What has been offering little relief are the classic pharmacological treatments for anxiety and mood disorders.
Studies have found as many as 10% to 30% of patients with depression are treatment resistant, while 30% to 50% of patients do not fully respond to existing pharmacotherapies.
Delays in care now make it harder to treat later. From a public health standpoint we are trading one pandemic for another.
“Delays of care prolong suffering,” explained Jonathan DePierro, PhD, an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. “So, when we identify people who are in distress, providing timely care can really be life altering and prevent someone having PTSD for 20 years. Untreated PTSD, untreated depression, crystallizes in the body in the brain, and it makes it even harder to treat down the road.”
We are on the precipice of a collective mental health breakdown when we don’t have to be. Help is around the corner and has been since the inception of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1986. The psychedelic renaissance has been gaining throttle since the early 2000s but it really began back in the 20th century with legends like Timothy Leary who would say things like, “To learn how to use your head, you have to go out of your mind”.
Now we find ourselves in the path of a slow moving tsunami of cities and states decriminalizing and legalizing psychedelics for therapeutic and personal use. Oregon is on a trajectory to start accepting psilocybin licensing applications next January 2023 with Measure 109. And on December 20th the city of Port Townsend, Washington took the leap into the psychedelic pool and passed Resolution 21-088. “The resolution stipulates that legal repercussions are deprioritized for adults who choose to consume and cultivate entheogenic plants for religious, spiritual, and personal growth purposes.” Port Townsend is the second city in Washington state following Seattle’s lead in October to decriminalize psychedelics.
“The proposal, which was crafted with input from a coalition of psychedelics activists, makes it so enforcement of laws against entheogenic substances like psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine are among the city’s lowest priorities.”
“Port Townsend “maintains that the abuse of controlled substances should be understood primarily as a public health issue,” the text of the resolution says.”
As the tsunami continues to move inland it is only fitting to move from Washington state to Colorado which were the first two states to legalize weed in November 2012 for adult use. Now voters in Colorado may get the chance to vote to legalize “the growing and possession of psychedelic substances next year, as well as establish a system of licensed businesses to produce psychedelics such as ibogaine, DMT and psilocybin to be used at healing centers”. About a year ago, Denver became the first city in the country to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. Now a national group of activists, New Approach PAC, filed a pair of psychedelic reform measures for the state’s 2022 ballot with the secretary of state’s office. “New Approach PAC is behind the psilocybin measure Oregon voters passed in 2020 as well as cannabis legalization campaigns”.
“One of the filed measures would legalize the use of psilocin and psilocybin and allow the substances to be sold and administered in a therapeutic setting. The other broader measure would create a regulatory model for psychedelic therapy in addition to legalizing the growing and possession of various entheogenic substances, including psilocin, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT and ibogaine.”
“Under this measure, no civil or criminal penalties would be imposed on the possession, use, processing, purchase, transportation or ingestion of natural medicine for individuals aged 21 and above, as long as the substance was less than four grams. Additionally, the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies would be in charge of creating rules for a psychedelics therapeutic program where individuals aged 21 and above could visit a healing center to obtain treatment.”
The tsunami continued onward to New York where Assemblyman Pat Burke (D) filed a bill On December 13 to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for medical purposes and establish facilities where the psychedelic could be grown and administered to patients. “Similar to Oregon’s Measure 109 the bill lists a series of medical maladies that could qualify a patient to access psilocybin—such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, autism and Parkinson’s disease—but it also states that it could be recommended for “any other condition” certified by a practitioner”. Therapists would need to take a two-hour training course provided by the Department of Health in order to certify patients for the psychedelic therapy.
Like any good tsunami it spreads far and wide and Canada, who has always been a bit more progressive, has moved a step forward in accepting psilocybin as a legitimate treatment for mental health conditions. Three Canadians struggling with mental health conditions were granted “Section 56” exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act from the federal Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos. “After a 283 day wait the individuals were legally allowed to undergo psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy”.
“They were assisted in their applications by TheraPsil, a B.C.-based non-profit coalition that has been advocating for legal, compassionate access to psilocybin therapy since 2019.
TheraPsil has helped 47 patients secure Section 56 exemptions since August 2020. But previously the exemptions were given to patients in palliative care or suffering from a terminal diagnosis and not patients struggling with anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health conditions. “In addition to securing exemptions for prospective patients, the organization also advocates for exemptions for healthcare professionals for training purposes”.
Spencer Hawkswell, the organization’s CEO, called these recent exemptions “the most important news that we’ve had since then.”
“Now it’s very clear, with this newest round of Section 56 exemptions, that we continue to have a minister of health that does understand the benefits,” he says.
Finally, winding it back to California where Senate Bill 519 passed the state senate and all assembly policy committees but was paused in the California State Assembly Appropriations Committee on August 25, 2021, co-author State Senator Scott Wiener says the bill is by “no means dead”and will be eligible to move forward in 2022.
All this change in policy can’t seem to happen fast enough because there has been a shift toward recreational drug users taking microdoses of LSD and mushrooms to improve their wellbeing and mental health during the pandemic. This trend in self-medicating small doses of psychedelics is for well-being rather than to enhance creativity as popularized in Silicon Valley.
“Prof Adam Winstock, the founder and director of the Global Drug Survey suggested people had been experimenting with microdosing during the pandemic, perhaps due to increased waiting times for mental health services”.
“Now, I think people are shifting towards using microdosing to enhance wellbeing and to address mental health distress.”
The 2021 survey found that among those respondents who both microdosed and took psychiatric drugs almost half reported reducing or stopping their prescribed medication.
“He said he hoped the survey would encourage mental health services, the psychiatric establishment and policymakers to engage positively with microdosing, adding that if the practice remains illegal vulnerable people could be exploited or accidentally take hallucinogenic and harmful doses.”
Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)