A Bold New Approach to Mental Health

Jonathan Lubecky and Tony White are but a few of the thousands of examples that the impact that Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy can have on those suffering from mental health conditions.

Retired Sergeant Jonathan Lubecky sat alone in a bar in Raleigh, North Carolina when he heard the chiming of church bells. It was Christmas Eve 2006 and midnight mass was about to start. He made his way to the church, looking for some solace and relief.  The church was packed and tears fell down his face as he pleaded to be let in.

“I just got back from Iraq. I really need to go in there.”

He was told to return in the morning. Instead, Lubecky went to a war memorial and contemplated ways to kill himself. 

Three months earlier, Lubecky had returned from deployment in Iraq. He had been stationed about 65 km outside of Baghdad at Balad Air Base – the epicentre of sectarian violence. The base was mortared so frequently that it became known as Mortaritaville. It was during one of these attacks that Lubecky narrowly escaped death, but was left with a traumatic brain injury. 

Upon his return home, Lubecky suffered from frequent nightmares and flashbacks. He hardly slept and experienced anxiety and depression.

“It’s a living nightmare, honestly. You feel like you have no control.”

Returning to civilian life was difficult, compounded by the fact that his wife had left him two weeks prior to his arrival, an unexpected blow. He bounced from job to job, finding it hard to concentrate or complete work tasks.

“On a typical day, I’d wake up, hang out, go to the bar, get drunk, come home. I tried to work. I’d work for like a month or two and get fired. Eventually, I just quit trying.”

The army had repeatedly told veterans that if they ever found themselves thinking of suicide, that they should go to the hospital. So in the early hours of Christmas morning, Lubecky drove himself to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg and informed the staff there that he was going to kill himself. He was given six Xanax, warned not to take them all at once as they could kill him, and told to return after the holidays. 

He went home and guzzled down a bottle of vodka, loaded his gun and pointed it at his head. Then he pulled the trigger. Fate had a different plan for Jonathan. The bullet was defective and didn’t make it down the barrel. 

He would attempt to kill himself four more times over the next eight years. He tried antidepressants, cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure therapy, but nothing seemed to take away the constant suicidal ideation.

“The VA did everything they could so that I could exist and that I did not end my life. And, my therapist had told me I was a difficult patient, because every time everything was triaged they would ask ‘can we keep him alive till tomorrow? Can we keep him alive till next week?’”

Regardless, he continued with weekly therapy sessions. In 2013 when his regular psychiatrist was away, Lubecky met with an intern that had studied his extensive file. She slid him a folded piece of paper and told him to open it after he left. On it was written, “Google MDMA PTSD.” 

Those three words would change his life. 

Five years later and nearly 4,000 kilometres away in Airdrie, Alberta, Tony White and his partner Rebecca Crewe received the news that Tony had stage zero bladder cancer. By June 2020, his cancer had dramatically advanced. He began the first of six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiation and immunotherapy. In the beginning, it looked like the chemotherapy was working, having reduced the tumors by 40%, but the reduction was short-lived – the tumors began to grow again and he deteriorated quickly. 

Rebecca took a leave of absence to focus on Tony’s health, becoming his full time caregiver and advocate.

“When you experience this illness and everything that goes along with it, it is incredibly overwhelming and intense,” explained Rebecca. “It’s always the next appointment, the next blood work, the next dosage. You’re dealing with just the day-to-day meds that they need to take, and then getting them to eat well. And then, just managing their pain and making sure they’re able to be bathed and cleaned and taken care of, and then working full-time.”

As Tony’s health continued to decline, the couple had to come to terms with the reality that Tony was terminal. 

“[The] emotions and psychology that comes along with that, you really have no idea until you’re in the thick of it,” continues Rebecca. “[Tony experienced] extreme despair, depression, anxiety, anger, rage. Rage. Lots of it. He was definitely not at peace.”

Rebecca wasn’t faring much better. She found herself scared and full of anger, accompanied by depression and anxiety. She felt as if they existed inside of a pressure cooker, ready to blow at any time. Through a long-time friend, Tony and Rebecca found out about an innovative treatment that incorporates psychedelics within established medical protocols and psychotherapy support for terminal patients. 

Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy combines guided psychotherapy with a psychedelic substance such as psilocybin (mushrooms), MDMA (ecstasy), LSD, ayahuasca, peyote, or ketamine.  This type of therapy has been utilized primarily for treating a patient experiencing end of life anxiety, treatment resistant depression or PTSD.

With nothing left to lose, Tony decided to give it a try. 

On New Year’s Day, 2021, Rebecca dropped Tony off where he underwent an intense, therapist-guided session with psilocybin. Seven hours later she returned.

“When I went in – what made me cry – was that Tony was crouched down by the fireplace, just looking at the fire.”

Tony had not been able to crouch down since the previous August. The radiation in his hip had made movement difficult. Rebecca was amazed.

“I expected the psychological and spiritual impact, but not for one moment did I expect the physical to be impacted. It was like he was trying to open up, like he was in a fetal position for so long from the illness and the pain that his body had just started turning physically inward. But after the journey, he stretched out his arms and lifted his chest. He could move his leg.”

Over the next two weeks, Rebecca witnessed the transformation. She felt she had the old Tony back.

“It gave him such peace. It was phenomenal. And his sense of humor was back, playing silly little tricks on me. We were basically like two children. All of a sudden, my butt’s getting smacked in the kitchen and he’s like, “come here, give me a hug,” and I’m like, “oh my god, you’re hugging me!” And we’re having a nice long hug. Like we used to.”

Rebecca and Tony were able to talk about things they had avoided, like what to do with his ashes, about the legacy he wanted to leave for his daughter. “We actually had a conversation where there were tears and laughter. Before, he couldn’t even talk about that.” 

The peace Tony felt extended to Rebecca as well.

“It was like day and night. He was sleeping better, so I was sleeping better. He was eating better, so I was eating better. It was a whole effect – it was a gift. They call them magic mushrooms for a reason.”

The Potential of Psychedelics 

While the use of psychedelics can be traced back to the late 1800s, many start the story in 1943 when Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann accidentally discovered the psychoactive properties of lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. Five years earlier he was tasked with synthesizing molecules produced by ergot, a common fungus that infects grains such as rye, in the search for marketable pharmaceuticals. Initial testing didn’t show much promise, so the molecules were shelved. When Hoffman returned to the compound for further examination, he absorbed a small amount into his skin. Hoffman documented the experience in his book “LSD – My Problem Child.”

“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.” (1)

Hoffman conducted a series of self-experiments in which he again experienced altered perceptions, albeit much more intense and threatening. He feared he was going insane.

“Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange…”

However, these terrifying feelings subsided as the experiment went on.

“The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude.The world was as if newly created.I could not, with every exertion of my will, shake off the LSD world. Everything was experienced as completely real, as alarming reality; alarming, because the picture of the other, familiar everyday reality was still fully preserved in the memory for comparison.”

Hoffman, as well as other researchers around the world, recognized the significance of his experiment and the importance that a compound such as LSD could have in pharmacology, neurology and psychiatry. 

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, extensive scientific research was conducted not only on LSD and MDMA, but also on a number of psychoactive compounds derived from plants including peyote (mescaline), ayahuasca (DMT),  and mushrooms (psilocybin). Of course, many of these had been in use for centuries amongst indigenous cultures. Psilocybin mushrooms were used by the Aztecs for healing and religious rituals. The peyote cactus and ayahuasca have a long history of use in religious ceremonies and as a sacrament amongst Indigenous Peoples of the USA and Mexico, as well as the Amazon valley. 

The term ‘psychedelic’ was formally introduced in 1957 by Humphrey Osmond, a British psychiatrist who became the clinical director of the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn. Together with Canadian biochemist and psychiatrist Abram Hoffer, the two led the advancement of psychedelic therapies as a means of understanding and treating mental illness, and put Saskatchewan on the map as an international hub of research.

Osmond and Hoffer theorized that LSD mimicked the effects of schizophrenia. If they could induce a temporary psychosis in mental health workers with a guided trip on LSD, then they would be better able to understand and treat patients. Furthermore, if otherwise healthy individuals could enter this state through a drug, then it followed that schizophrenia may be the result of a chemical imbalance. (2)

On October 1, 1953, journalist Sydney Katz published an article entitled “My 12 Hours as a Madman,” in MacLean’s magazine, where he described his experience as a participant in one of Osmond’s LSD experiments.

“I will never be able to describe fully what happened to me during my excursion into madness. There are no words in the English language designed to convey the sensations I felt or the visions, illusions, hallucinations, colors, patterns and dimensions which my disordered mind revealed. It was as though someone had rooted out the nerve nets in my brain, which control the senses, then joined them together again without thought to their proper placings. At times, I beheld visions of dazzling beauty—visions so rapturous, so unearthly, that no artists will ever paint them.

The acute stages of my madness had lasted for over four hours. But my ordeal was not yet over. There are many gradations of mental illness, short of experiencing hallucinations, which are very distressing. I was to learn something about them during the next eight hours.

My thoughts now turned to the patients in the mental hospital. I was fortunate. I had endured the torment of hell for only twelve hours and now I was free. But how about them? Many of them have been mentally ill for five, ten and even fifteen years. How long did a single tortured hour appear to be to them? A day? A month? A year? An eternity?” (3)

Katz’s article was able to put into words what patients themselves could not. 

Not long after Katz’s article appeared, Robert Gordon Wasson, a vice president with J.P. Morgan and his wife Dr. Valentina Wasson, both amateur mycologists, published an account of their participation in a traditional mushroom ceremony in southern Mexico, in LIFE Magazine. Much like the LSD accounts, they experienced visions, vivid colours and imagery.

“The visions were not blurred or uncertain. They were sharply focused, the lines and colors being so sharp that they seemed more real to me than anything I had ever seen with my own eyes. I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view… for the effect of the mushrooms is to bring about a fission of the spirit, a split in the person, a kind of schizophrenia, with the rational side continuing to reason and to observe the sensations that the other side is enjoying.” (4)

These publications combined with promising research results from around the world, helped foster political and public support. Reforms to hospitals and mental institutions were implemented, including changes in hospital design and staff training. (5) Millions of dollars were put into research facilities and other areas of examination including anxiety amongst cancer patients, alcoholism, addiction, and even spirituality and creativity. 

The future looked promising. 

However, by the 60 and 70s, attitudes started to change. These potent drugs had made their way out of the controlled labs and into the streets. Mainstream media began to report instances of drug-induced madness, hallucinations, violence, and suicide. Parents and politicians panicked over the political dissent and anti-authority sentiment these hallucinogens seemed to invoke, as well as their connection to the growing counterculture movement that was taking place. 

In Canada, severe birth defects caused by the medication thalidomide cast doubts on the reliability of ‘wonder drugs.’ The ability of medical experts to effectively and safely determine the long-term effects of pharmaceuticals, was called into question and became a point of hot debate between the medical and political communities. (6)

Some of the researchers themselves contributed to the change in support, including former Harvard Professor, Timothy Leary, who became viewed as the “most dangerous man in America,” for advocating for the mass use of mind-expanding drugs and to “Turn on! Tune In. Drop Out.” In 1963, Leary proclaimed:

“Make no mistake: the effect of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed, ladies and gentlemen. Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull. Present social establishments had better be prepared for the change. Our favorite concepts are standing in the way of a floodtide, two billion years building up. The verbal dam is collapsing. Head for the hills, or prepare your intellectual craft to flow with the current.” (7)

In 1975, reports that the CIA had been conducting covert experiments with LSD on government employees and civilians without their knowledge, came to light. Known as MK-Ultra, the mind-control project’s asked the question, “Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?” The ensuing scandal put pressure on the government to shut down the remaining research projects. (8)

By 1976, a nearly worldwide ban on psychedelics came into effect with the implementation of the United Nations Convention of Psychotropic Substances of 1971. The convention classified all psychedelics as Schedule I drugs, deeming them a “serious risk to public health” with little or no therapeutic or medical value. Medical research using psychedelics was effectively halted due to the increased cost and regulatory burden associated with gaining access to the various compounds, their findings and insights relegated to the annals of history. (9)

A Psychedelic Renaissance 

Between 1994 – 1998 three modern clinical studies using mescaline, DMT and psilocybin in healthy volunteers were conducted and formed the basis for a resurgence in psychedelic  studies. (10) It wasn’t until 2006 though, that major interest in the study of psychedelics was again renewed with the publication of a paper in Psychopharmacology, entitled, “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Significance,” by highly regarded scientist, Roland Griffiths. It was the first double-blind clinical study to examine the psychological and spiritual effects of psilocybin on healthy individuals and received much press coverage. (11) 

In addition, the medical community’s understanding of mental illness, as well as the biochemical interactions of the brain, had grown immensely over the previous five decades since Hoffer and  conducted their studies in Saskatchewan. Advances in technology and the development of neuroimaging scans such as Electroencephalogy (EEG), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Computed tomography (CT) allowed scientists to look at brain functioning and confirm theories and past findings with more rigorous data. 

At the same time, organizations such as The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness, Imperial College, The Beckley Foundation, and The Heffter Research Institute had been busy raising awareness and understanding, lobbying governments to decriminalize and/or deregulate psychedelics, and engaged in funding scientific research. 

Much like the earlier research, the findings coming out of these modern studies were showing positive results. Psilocybin combined with psychological support has been shown to reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms amongst patients with treatment-resistant depression; reduce anxiety and depression amongst terminal patients facing end-of-life; and shown efficacy in treating alcohol and tobacco dependence. (12) (13)

MDMA studies combined with psychoanalysis have shown great promise in the treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), indicating sustained decreases in PTSD symptoms. The theory behind its effectiveness is that:

“MDMA may allow patients to experience reduced fear and shame, and, at the same time, feelings of trust and safety, often of great importance in complex PTSD. This enables them to more easily revisit and process traumatic memories and gain openness and trust. Patients also feel more empathetic and experience an increased openness to new and constructive perspectives on their situation. They may experience an increased connection to others, changes in views on life values and purposes, and insights into the moral value of traumatic exposures or around existential issues. Integrated within a psychotherapeutic treatment, 2 to 3 sessions with MDMA have shown the ability to induce significant and sustained reductions in PTSD symptoms.” (14)

It was a MAPS-sponsored stage 2 clinical trial using MDMA to treat PTSD amongst veterans, that Sgt. Jonathan Lubecky participated in 2014, after his Google search. He had already attempted suicide 5 times and was taking 42 different medications. He figured he was going to die anyways, so he might as well give it a try. 

Between November and March 2014/2015, Lubecky attended three sessions, six to eight weeks apart. At each session, he was given a single dose of MDMA, and when it kicked in, the psychiatrist conducted a therapy session. It started with a simple question, “What was the weather like in Iraq.” That single question opened the floodgates. Lubecky stated:

“It’s like doing therapy while being hugged by everyone in the world who loves you, in a bathtub full of puppies licking your face. Of the participants I’ve talked to, it seems to fall into one of two camps. You either have an “aha” moment in one of the three sessions where everything just comes together, and you’re good, right. Or, it’s more like drainage, which was kind of like mine. You clean out a little bit in the first, a little bit in the second, and a little bit in the third. And eventually, it’ll run clear.”

Lubecky stressed the importance of the therapy component, as he doesn’t believe that taking MDMA in and of itself is what works.

“The therapy part is a critical component. [You’ve] got to face the demons. But the MDMA makes it okay. You trust and love the people you’re with; the therapist in the room. Your body doesn’t betray you. You can just talk about it. You can cry, or laugh, or do whatever, and work your way through it in a safe environment.”

In the more than 5 years since Lubecky participated in the study, he has not had any suicidal ideation. He is down to taking only two medications per day and he believes he has cured his PTSD; something he didn’t believe would be possible when he entered the therapist’s room.

“I was told by everyone, including respected, well-known medical professionals, that this [PTSD] was permanent. I believed that there was only temporary relief. I’m more than willing to admit that I was completely wrong. This is not permanent – it can be healed. And so, I hope they make the advancements in psychedelic research. Look at the science – there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Future of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Jonathan Lubecky and Tony White are but a few of the thousands of examples that the impact that Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy can have on those suffering from mental health conditions. While this type of treatment is in its infancy, recent and ongoing research shows significant efficiency with few adverse effects, when paired with psychotherapy and medical supervision. (15) (16) (17)

However, up until 2020, legal use of psychedelics in therapy or otherwise was not possible in Canada. Psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and LSD are classified as controlled and prohibited substances. Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drug and Substance Act does allow for certain exemptions to be made by the Health Minister for medical or scientific purposes. 

In August of 2020, Health Minister Patty Hajdu granted the first exemptions to Canadians with terminal cancer, allowing them to legally receive psilocybin therapy for their anxiety, and opening the door to future exemptions.  Approximately 30 exemptions would be granted over the coming months, providing some hope to those wishing to legally undergo the therapy.  

Yet a handful of exemptions simply doesn’t begin to address the significant demand for access to relief for millions of Canadians currently suffering with a range of mental health conditions that research shows could likely be reduced or mitigated by Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy. 

For caregivers like Rebecca Crewe, this is progress, but more needs to be done. She concludes:

“Why are we able to load people with oxy and Fentanyl and Hydromorphine? [Tony] had all of it, but to get this natural product that has such an incredible impact with very little side effects, we had to jump through hoops, or you have to be dying to get it. Right now, that’s not acceptable.” 

“If you yourself have, or have anybody who you love in your life who is potentially terminally ill, or has depression, anxiety, PTSD – it’s indicative that this type of therapy is going to have a positive impact on these issues, so get involved.”

References

1. Hoffman – LSD: My Problem Child

2. Erika Dyck Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD on the Canadian Prairies.

3. My 12 Hours as a Madman, Sydney Katz, 1953.

4. LIFE Magazine (June 10, 1957). R. Gordon Wasson. Seeking the Magic Mushroom.

5. Psychedelic research in 1950s Saskatchewan, Erika Dyck. July 16, 2019.

6. Psychedelic Psychiatry, Erika Dyck.

7. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan. 2018.

8. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan. 2018.

9. Psychedelics and Canada’s Regulatory Landscape, Leila Rafi and Sasa Jarvis. July 2020, Capital Markets Bulletin. McMillan.

10. Psychiatry & the psychedelic drugs. Past, Present & Future. James Jilt Rucker, Jonathan Ilift, and David J. Nutt. 2018. Neuropharmacology Vol 142.

11. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan. 2018.

12. Increased amygdala responses to emotional faces after psilocybin for treatment resistant depression, Leor Roseman, Lysia Demetriou, Matthew B. Wall, David J. Nutt and Robin L. Carhart-Harris. 2017. Neuropharmacology.

13. Psychedelic Psychiatry’s Brave New World. David Nutt, David Erritzoe, Robin Carhart-Harris. April 2020, Cell 181.

14. Reviewing the Potential of Psychedelics for the Treatment of PTSD. Erwin Krediet, Tijmen Bostoen, Joost Breeksema, Annette van Schagen,Torsten Passie, Eric Vermetten. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology(2020) 23(6): 385-400.

15. Griffith RR, Johnson MW, Carducci MA, et al.: Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology 2016; 30(12) 1181-1197.

16. Grob CS, Danforth AL, Chopra GS, et al. Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):71–78. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.116

17. Johnson MW, Griffiths RR: Potential therapeutic effects of psilocybin. Neurotherapeutics 2017; 14:734-740.

More News and Media:

Working magic?

Mushrooms are having a moment, reports Gayle MacDonald, most notably in the treatment of mental-health disorders and PTSD.

Veterans & PTSD

MDMA studies combined with psychoanalysis have shown great promise in the treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), indicating sustained decreases in PTSD symptoms.

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