Are psychedelics a solution to the mental health crisis?

Psychedelics could represent a new treatment approach in psychiatry. But can they combat the global health crisis? At the INSIGHT 2021 Conference, Prof. Dr. Gerhard Gründer takes a critical look on the issue.

Faith in substances is greater than previously thought

Psychedelics could represent a new treatment approach in psychiatry. But can psychedelics fight the global health crisis? At the INSIGHT 2021 Conference, Prof. Dr. Gerhard Gründer from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim had a critical look at this question.

Gerhard Gründer is Professor of Psychiatry and Head of the Department of Molecular Neuroimaging at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany and researches the neurobiochemistry of mental disorders and clinical psychopharmacology. He is also leading a collaborative study on the treatment of depression with psilocybin. At the beginning of his talk, Gründer asks the audience who thinks psychedelics are the solution? Slightly more than 50% say: No. With his lecture, Gründer wants to convince the proponents of the opposite.

He uses Google search results and newspaper clippings to show how great the belief in psychedelics is. Then, the question comes up whether or not illegal drugs are a way to solve the problem of the mental health crisis. Another article asks whether LSD could fight the health crisis as a result of the pandemic? Gründer then presents some slides showing tables with increasing numbers of suicide rates and abuse of hard drugs. “Does anyone think we're going to reduce those numbers by feeding people psychedelics?”, he asks eventually. And this "game" goes on for quite a while.

Depression has social causes

For Gründer, these numbers are related to society, to living, working and communicating. No drug can solve those. He shows an article that wants to prevent teenage suicide with ketamine. Then Gründer presents the suicide figures for children between 10 and 14. More and more young girls in particular are committing suicide. Here, Gründer makes a connection between the founding of Facebook in 2004 and the rise in teenage suicide victims since then.

The World Happiness Report 2019 shows several countries where people are particularly unhappy. And again, he raises the question: if giving all Afghans psychedelics does it make a difference? Unemployment and lack of education are the reasons for mental illnesses like depression, not only in underdeveloped countries, but also in Germany, the USA or Scandinavia. Once again, Gründer asks whether or not psychedelics could solve this?

Anti-depressants and empathy

In the last part of his lecture, however, Gründer shows a different approach. Experiments with rats conducted by a colleague had shown that the rats that had been given benzodiazepine showed less empathy. They did not help the other rats to escape from the cage. Studies with antidepressants in humans showed similar results. Gründer suggests that the antidepressants and the resulting emotional blunting may be one reason for the mental health crisis. Here he brings his experience with psychedelics into play, because psilocybin had certainly caused emotions in his patients.

So, he explains, treatment with psychedelics is a different approach to treatment, where negative emotions are not suppressed but allowed. "I know that this will not solve all of the problems. Psychedelics for me are a type of metaphor for a changed mindset, openness, connectedness and empathy. That's the mindset we need if we want to save the planet. But you can't save the planet by giving LSD to Donald Trump or Javier Bolsonario."