For twenty years, the therapeutic use of psychedelic substances has been revived within the scientific community. Despite the prohibition of psychotropic drugs, research demonstrates their effectiveness in alleviating depression or anxiety disorders.
Change in perception, hallucination or dissolution of ego, mystical experience. The effects vary from person to person. Hidden behind myths and tenacious representations, psychedelics carry a completely different medical history. LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms or ayahuasca. Here, no smell of patchouli or square of cardboard in a rave party but tangible results: psychedelics are useful therapeutics to fight against depression, anxiety, addictions or in the context of palliative care. For the past twenty years, scientific research has once again taken up the subject. With promising and effective results.
Psychedelics have been part of rituals and spirituality for millennia in Latin America. In the first half of the 20th century, new molecules were synthesized, such as LSD, the effects of which were revealed somewhat by chance to the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1943. Twenty years of research and medical hopes followed, until in the final ax: official prohibition by the UN in 1971, initiated earlier by the Nixon administration. The psychedelic experience joins the illegality.
But today there is change. The Department of Psychiatry of the University Hospitals of Geneva offers psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. The idea is simple: taking a dose of LSD or psilocybin in a safe setting. Objective: reduce depressive or anxious symptoms and fight against the effects of addictions.
The patient engages in a session of eight to ten hours, supervised and accompanied by university staff, without the latter intervening in the experience. A reversible alteration of consciousness allowing the investigation of spaces, often unconscious, in the person to whom the psychedelics are administered. Then, it will be a matter of finding meaning in the lived experience and integrating it into the patient’s private psychotherapy.
In oncology, we see that 60% of patients are in demand and seek complementary and alternative medicine.
As in Switzerland, psychedelics are included in the Belgian list of illicit substances. However, as in the land of the father of LSD, exceptions exist. Head to ULiège. “It’s very complicated. Our colleague Olivia Gosseries, director of the Coma Science Group of Giga Consciousness, took more than a year to start the projects and complete the long administrative procedures. The projects evoked by Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, team leader of the Sensation and Perception Research Group research center of the Giga Consciousness of ULiège, and scientist at the CHU of Liège, are just beginning. “There are two. The first offers the taking psychedelics to comatose patients to help them recover a conscience.” The second would combine the taking small doses of psychedelics with hypnosis techniques, area of expertise of the research center. “Our hypothesis is to see if taking small doses of psychedelics, combined with suggestions for mystical experiences in hypnosis, could induce the same experiences as with the high doses of psychedelics usually used.”
Take back control
The Sensation and Perception Research Group is more generally interested in complementary approaches to drug therapies to improve patient well-being. Hypnosis (combined with virtual reality), self-induced cognitive trance. “In oncology, we see that 60% of patients are in demand and seek complementary and alternative medicine,” says Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse. These approaches offer patients a taking control of their well-beinga position as an actor in recovery that moves away from the relationship of authority with the doctor who alone has the knowledge and the tools to apply.
Despite reluctance, the medical world is changing and adapting slowly. “The proof is that two organizations recognized in Belgium – the Foundation against cancer and Télévie – financed us. It’s a very positive sign.” Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse evokes an evolution over a long time, whether for psychedelic therapies or hypnosis, for which there are already thirty years of scientific hindsight. It was necessary to overcome the fears of hospitals and the medical profession thanks to rigorous research and the creation of effective tools.
Another allied element: the Covid crisis, which recalled the importance of mental health care. In December 2021, 24% of the population over the age of 18 reported suffering from anxiety disorders and 21% from depression, according to statistics from Sciensano. Since conventional drug treatments are not suitable or effective for everyone, approaches such as psychedelic therapies could, in the long term, enter the register of the normal within the medical world.