Celebrity accounts of the life-changing power psychedelic drugs have been making headlines for years. Actor Will Smith is the latest to claim that his life has been transformed by "natural" psychedelics like ayahuasca. So, can these drugs lead us away from trauma and towards enlightenment; or is the glamorous narrative around them putting people in the way of harm? The truth about psychedelics is more surprising and more mundane than the celebrity narrative would indicate, as Claire Byrne discovered in her chat with Trinity College Professor of Psychiatry, Dr Brendan Kelly.
Dr Kelly's colleagues in Trinity College, Dublin are currently studying the effects on the brain of the chemicals contained in magic mushrooms with a view to assessing their potential as psychiatric medications. This academic research is necessary, Professor Kelly says, as a story about a rich person’s adventures with psychedelics in the Amazon is not the same having as having hard, reliable data:
"The current research is trying to see if this effect can be harnessed in a systematic way to help people, rather than in the kind of random way that it tends to be used."
Dr Kelly says that there are many gaps in the scientific data which research is attempting to fill. The Professor also says it’s important to remember that there are also gaps in the personal stories of people like Chris Martin, Sting or Will Smith, all of whom have given positive accounts of their experiences with psychedelic drugs. There is another side to it, Dr Kelly says:
"We hear about the people who happen to have had good experiences. There are very many people who have bad experiences when they are using things like magic mushrooms and very many who end up needing to come to see people like me because of using this substance."
There is a certain "buzz" around psychedelic drugs, Dr Kelly says, because of the publicity they get and also because people thing they are 'healthier' than other medicines. Dr Kelly says that some patients will take a drug they think is "natural", but which could contain anything at all, and the same patients will refuse to take a known, safe and established medication whose contents have been tested:
"You don’t really know what you’re getting, most of the time. I often meet people who might not want to take an anti-depressant medication, because they’ll say ‘It’s not natural,’ and yet they will smoke or snort absolutely anything they buy from the boot of a car."
Nature is full of poisons, Dr Kelly says, as well as things that are beneficial to us, so you need to know what you are taking. If you take an un-prescribed substance to help your mental health, you could end up with a new life-long condition to add to what you are already dealing with, he says:
"People can have an episode of psychosis. In other words, after they are high, or after the intoxication, they can remain out of touch with reality in important respects.This requires treatment with medication. It can require in-patient hospital stays and it can lead to a lasting negative effect on somebody’s mental health. And also of course, in the intoxicated state, people can do very dangerous things."
The good news is that sustainable, health-promoting long term results to our mental health can be achieved by other means. There is no quick fix, but there is hope, Professor Kelly says:
"People speak movingly about shortcuts to cosmic awareness through psychedelics, but for everyone who speaks of an experience like that, there are many others who have negative experiences. A much more reliable, safer way to proceed, is to look after your physical health and do some meditation or the like, and that will produce true transformation."
Professor Kelly talks about the Trinity research in more detail in the full interview here. Professor Kelly's discusses practical tips on happiness in his book The Science of Happiness, which is published by Gill Books.