As the deadly coronavirus pandemic continues to grow, the looming mental health crisis creates an urgent need for innovation, putting a spotlight on psychedelic-assisted treatments, says the co-founder of Advanced Integrative Medical Science Institute (AIMS) in Seattle.
The FDA last year approved an esketamine nasal spray for drug-resistant depression and called psychedelic psilocybin “a breakthrough therapy.” Many companies that are still in early stages of research and clinical trials may need to accelerate their efforts to help address the psychological implications of the pandemic, says Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, affiliate clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and an UW affiliate assistant geography professor.
The pandemic “puts an additional impetus to innovate in our community for those of us who are already doing this,” says Aggarwal, a physician who has spent more than 15 years at the forefront of research into cannabis and psychedelic therapy in hospice and palliative care.
The coronavirus outbreak is happening at an unprecedented global scale, which has imploded financial markets and dominated headlines, and it is taking a toll on mental health as millions experience paralyzing anxiety and struggle to navigate social isolation. Suicide hotlines across the country have reported an influx of calls, with some states including mental health protections in their responses to the pandemic.
While the FDA approved ketamine decades ago as an anesthetic, AIMS and other clinics around the country that have been experimenting with off-label use of the drug see significant improvements in patients struggling with PTSD, trauma and depression.
Low doses of ketamine administered in conjunction with therapy and follow-up integration sessions allow patients to access a non-ordinary state of consciousness, gain new perspectives and relieve trauma, says Aggarwal. Recently, he treated an older patient with a low white blood cell count who was struggling with anxieties around COVID-19.
“The ketamine trip gave him a lot of inner peace,” says Aggarwal.
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Meanwhile, Oregon-based Silo Wellness is planning to organize free facilitated psilocybin-assisted retreats in Jamaica next year for COVID first responders who have been impacted by the trauma of the pandemic “at levels not seen since the Great Depression and World War II.”
“We recognize that the nurses and other healthcare professionals working closest to those suffering are going to be in need of not only a vacation but a complete reboot – time to reflect and do a deep dive into what they just went through,” the company said on its website.
The outbreak has also threatened to stall the campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes in Oregon after activists were forced to suspend in-person signature collections. The campaign, which has already garnered more than 130,000 signatures to put the initiative on the state’s November ballot, is now planning to text, call and use social media, urging residents to fill out petitions and mail them in.
“The stressors associated with the pandemic will undoubtedly push rates (of mental health illness) even higher, which further highlights the importance of this initiative,” Tom Eckert, a psychotherapist and one of the main petitioners, said in a press release this week. “Thankfully, our networks and supporters are energized and mobilizing—they understand what is at stake here, and we’re counting on that enthusiasm to overcome the obstacles we face.”
Listen to GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast above or subscribe in any podcast app to hear a discussion with Mike Arnold, founder of Silo Wellness; entrepreneur and consultant Eric Boone of Cannabinovation.com; Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, an affiliate clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine; and journalist Anastasia Ustinova.