The federal government is funding research into using psychedelics to treat mental illness. So, do they work?

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The federal government has announced it will pour millions of dollars into clinical trials using psychedelics like magic mushrooms and MDMA to see if they can help treat debilitating mental illnesses.

But why is the government forking out taxpayer dollars for magic mushrooms? And are there any risks in taking these, even in a trialled environment?

Here’s what we know about the plan and whether psychedelics are a realistic option.

What are psychedelics?

Psychedelics or hallucinogens are a class of psychoactive substances that can change your mood, senses and even cause hallucinations.

There are many different types and some occur naturally, like in mushrooms or leaves, while others are made in labs.

Some of the ones the government is talking about trialling in this instance include psilocybin (better known as magic mushrooms), ketamine (which is primarily used for starting and maintaining anaesthesia) and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, which is also known as MDMA, molly or ecstasy.

A close-up photo of a white capsule pill on a palm
A pill containing psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in “magic mushrooms”.(Supplied: St Vincent’s Hospital)

What’s this trial looking at?

The government is investing $15 million in grants to support Australian-led research into the use of magic mushrooms, ecstasy and ketamine to combat illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, addiction disorders and eating disorders.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said it was vital the government continued to search for new and better treatments for mental illness.

“But more research is desperately needed before these approaches can be used by psychiatrists outside of controlled clinical trials.

“This grant opportunity will boost local research into potentially life-saving therapies and offers hope to all those suffering from mental illness, including our veterans and emergency service personnel dealing with the devastating effects of PTSD.”

Why is the government funding these trials?

It’s estimated 4 million Australians experience a mental health disorder every year, and almost half of all Australians will be affected at some point in their lifetime.

Many of the standard treatments for these illnesses vary greatly in how effective they are, and there haven’t been many major pharmaceutical discoveries in this area in recent years.

At the same time, once dismissed as dangerous party drugs, psychedelics are gaining mainstream acceptance in the medical world as ways to treat mental illnesses such as depression and PTSD.

The idea of treating mental illness with psychedelics has been around for a while (even centuries in some cultures), but there’s been a gap in the research into their potential use as a treatment for mental illnesses because they were declared prohibited substances in the 1960s.

Australia’s national medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, currently doesn’t recognise MDMA and psilocybin as legitimate medicines to treat psychiatric conditions.

But that could change, depending on these trial results.

Are there risks?

A memorandum published by The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) last year noted there was an ongoing need to collect more data.

But it said so far, in controlled trials and when administered at therapeutic doses, psychedelic therapies demonstrated an initial high-safety and low-risk profile, with limited physiological concerns.

It did note though that MDMA could increase your heart rate and blood pressure.

It also said that when misused, psychedelics could cause psychosis — a medical condition in which the mind is affected and there’s some loss of contact with reality.

For this reason, current trials for psychedelic therapy generally exclude people with a personal or family history of psychosis or mania.

Brightly coloured pills
MDMA and psilocybin are being used to treat severe depressive disorders in clinical trials around the world.(Reuters: DEA)

But there’s also a risk in not exploring this in clinical trials.

A recent Global Drug Survey found 6,500 of 110,000 respondents said they were self-treating their mental illness, particularly with ecstasy, magic mushrooms and LSD.

The head of the Australian arm of the survey, RMIT University’s Monica Barratt, said the findings were a reminder people were already using psychedelics as a DIY mental health treatment.

“As Australia awaits the progress of clinical trials of these substances for mental health conditions, we need to recognise the demand for them is increasing and this demand may end up being filled outside of the medical setting,” Dr Barratt said.

What does the existing research say?

Worldwide, there are currently about 100 psychedelic trials for the treatment of depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug-use disorders, dementia, anorexia and chronic pain.

Psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression and MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD have been given “breakthrough therapy” designation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.

That means the FDA believes the therapies may offer substantial advantages over current therapies, and have therefore been expedited in their transition to prescribed medicines (although it hinges on the results from clinical trials).

RANZCP president John Allan said while further research was required to assess the safety and effectiveness of psychedelics, preliminary studies showed positive results.

“We are seeing limited but emerging evidence that psychedelic therapies may have therapeutic benefits in the treatment of a range of mental illnesses, such as PTSD substance abuse and depression,” he said.

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