18 July 2011

mental health mondays :: fighting crazy with crazy

groove for the cure
saskatchewan, canada is not known for being a hub of groundbreaking thought and innovation [and yes, i know that there are probably people there who are objecting and that the place is really full of amazing artists, scientists and titans of industry but my point is that you aren't known for it, so deal], but in the 1950s, a group of scientists pioneered work in the field of alcoholism treatment that garnered some pretty astounding results. where all other options had failed, psychiatrists humphry osmond and abram hoffer claimed they saw positive results in approximately 45% of the two thousand cases of chronic alcoholism they treated over six years with their novel drug therapy: giving their patients acid.

a lot of criticism has been leveled at their work, particularly about the qualitative nature of much of the data, but the sad fact is that their research was abandoned in the sixties for political rather than scientific reasons, leaving most of their findings in the realm of the possible, promising but unproven. with established opinion turning against the accoutrements of the youth movement- drugs above all- lsd was relegated in north america and the united kingdon to the lowest circle of narcotic hell, classed as a substance with no medical potential whatsoever. which kind of sucks if you're one of the people who might benefit from it.


you see, psychedelics aren't just good for making you see god and paint in bright colours. it turns out that at lower [sub-hallucinatory] levels, they're remarkably good at improving mood, even among the chronically depressed, at helping patients deal with chronic pain [not unlike a lot of current prescription meds for mental disorders, which are often used "off-label" to treat conditions like fibromyalgia] and even help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, when used in conjunction with therapy.

if you can see this, your dosage is too high
there is pretty solid science that helps explain why psychedelics in certain doses are helpful to people with mental disorders. it turns out that they function as agonists [agents that cause an action] to the poetically named 5-ht2a receptors [i could try to explain that, but let's just say that it's something istrewn through many parts of your body, which are activated by the neurotransmitter serotonin and which are implicated in everything from imagination to temperature]. psychedelics get your receptors tingling and alter the way in which your brain communicates with itself. in large doses, that can mean that you feel like you're discovering the hidden meaning behind the universe. in smaller doses, it can mean that you realise that things aren't so damn bad and you should lighten up on yourself once in a while.

this is where our societal prejudice about drugs comes to the fore. we are all socialised to accept certain drugs as acceptable within certain limits [alcohol, nicotine], certain drugs as necessary [prescription medications] and certain drugs as evil [narcotics]. most rational people know that these divisions based more on superstition and politics than on any potential dangers or benefits. i touched on this subject a while back, when i talked about the benefits of desoxyn [crystal meth to you] as a medication for adhd. the fact is that when you look at the reported side effects of a lot of medications that are commonly prescribed for mental disorders, the idea that accidentally taking a double dose of your meds might cause you to shake hands with vishnu doesn't seem so awful.

it's almost reassuring to think that "the man" is preventing you from getting better drugs because of some archaic drug war- and i'm not saying that isn't the case- but the fact is that the injunction against certain medications not only prevents them from being prescribed to treat conditions for which they might prove a relief, but it also prevents them from being properly, quantitatively studied to see if they really do fulfill the promise they've shown, or if they're doomed to be somewhat enjoyable recreational tools with mildly positive side effects [which would still make them superior to nicotine].

take two and call me when you can find the phone
the fact is that brains are extraordinarily complex things and are still largely surrounded in mystery as to the basic nature of their functioning. brains that [mal]function in such a way as to impel the body to do harm unto itself share some broad characteristics, but research, even on the limited number of chemicals currently approved to redress "imbalances", shows that positive reactions are frighteningly individual. drugs that are miracle-workers for some are poison for others and no one knows why. some might argue that this offers some proof of the ineffectiveness of medication for mental disorders as a whole. others, however, might say that it's evidence that the hope for people with mental disorders severe enough to impair their everyday lives lies in allowing people access to the broadest possible spectrum of potential cures.

for more on the subject, check out this article from the excellent neurophilosophy blog.

5 comments:

magus ana said...

yeah - leary started out using lysergic for alcoholism

cia thinks :"hey, maybe we can use this stuff as a weapon" and drops it on unsuspecting military grunts while government makes it illegal at the same time

Jen said...

My father was 20 in 1968. Let's just say I got a few children's albums to listen to as a kid because they had been bought to listen to while on LSD.

flora_mundi said...

@Magus- I was kind of shocked when I read the research at first, because my thoughts went to MK-ULTRA as well. That, however, was research of a very different sort, where the aim was to cause harm to the patient, not to cure anything.

@Jen- I think a lot of children probably had to go through the experience of their childhood toys and music giving their parents some pretty intense flashbacks.

magus ana said...

Your post inspired me, i used to work at a detox center and posted something about it on my blog

i also reminded that bill w. (founder of alcholics anonymous) promoted lsd as a cure

flora_mundi said...

Glad to have served as a catalyst!

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