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Did the hippies hold the key to better mental health?

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Please note, this article is in no way intended to suggest that anyone should ever attempt to self-medicate with drugs. In the studies of these drugs, the drugs themselves are pharmaceutical grade and carefully measured. With some of them, treatments are performed as ‘guided trips’ with a therapist present throughout.


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Opinion / by Corinne Lamoureux of Mental Health Switch


Drugs + mental illness = BAD!!!


That’s right isn’t it? It's what I've always believed and been taught. After all, Mental Health First Aid states that drugs can increase the likelihood of developing mental ill health and worsen existing conditions.


Hippies of the 1960’s and 70’s were synonymous with drugs. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was popularised by Timothy Leary in 1966 when he urged people to embrace cultural changes through the use of psychedelics by detaching from the existing

conventions and hierarchies in society.


But the tide against drugs had been changing since 1961 when the International Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was introduced. It was formed during the era of McCarthyism, the Berlin wall was being built, and there was a fear of communism spreading throughout the world. As the Hippie culture was more accepting of other beliefs and values, it was easy to equate being a hippie with being a communist. We have also long associated abstinence (drugs and alcohol) with moral rectitude, which still continues now. If you want to imply that someone is bad, just say that they take drugs.


But recent research is now challenging this belief, offering a potential paradigm shift in our view of psychedelics. All of which begs the question: did the hippies get it right?

The history of psychedelics in medicine


Hallucinogenic substances are among the oldest drugs used by human kind. They naturally occur in mushrooms, cacti and a variety of other plants, and yet, in most developed countries today, the possession of many hallucinogens – even those found commonly in nature – is considered a crime punishable by fines, imprisonment or even death.


President Richard Nixon once described Leary as "the most dangerous man in America". Contrary to what you might think though, Timothy Leary was not some far-out radical – in fact, he was a clinical psychologist at Harvard University!


Leary worked on the Harvard Psilocybin Project from 1960 to 1962 and, after leaving his position, continued to promote the use of psychedelics. His work led to multiple arrests and stints in multiple prisons (36 to be precise!).




After the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was introduced, the authorities began to move against the counter-culture and by 1973, even research on psychedelic drugs for medical purposes was banned.


Non-profit organisations like the Association for Psychedelic Studies and Beckley Foundation, as well academic researchers like Roland Griffiths at John Hopkins University or David Nutt at Imperial College London, refused to be deterred, and by the 2010’s had amassed a body of evidence that has led to a resurgence in the study of these drugs. The Psychoactive Substances Act was passed in 2016

which exempts approved scientific research.


In 2018, the world started to see a dramatic change in its attitude to these drugs. Thirty-three states in the USA legalised the use of cannabis for medical purposes. This was followed in 2019 by the approval of esketamine nasal spray for adults suffering from treatment-resistant depression – the first major breakthrough in the treatment of depression since the late 1980’s!


(Currently, esketamine is approved for people with treatment-resistant depression. That means you’ve tried at least two other antidepressants for at least six weeks each and haven’t experienced remission or at least a 50% improvement in mood).


What does this mean for mental health?


Ketamine (a Class B drug under UK law) was originally approved as an anaesthetic. If you watch programmes like “Air Ambulance,” you will see it being used for people with severe injuries, but it is proving to be an effective treatment for a variety of different mental health conditions.


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22 Apr 2021

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