From Wall Street to Hollywood, psychedelics have a cultural moment. For those of us who are in the “This is your brain on drugs“Era, it’s hard to let go of the stigma – and the mental image of an egg sizzling on a hot pan. But as a growing number of states and cities decriminalize drugs and investors pour into an emerging market for psychedelic health care, substances like psilocybin, ketamine, and LSD are pushing into mainstream culture – setting the stage for a paradigm shift in modern medicine.
In the next few years, we could see psychedelic therapies prescribed for refractory depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or used in palliative care for people with a life-limiting illness. But first we need to better understand the benefits of psychedelic treatments. Right now we’re in the perfect storm to accelerate further studies – and healthcare workers are at the forefront.
It is no coincidence that psychedelics come up at the moment when we urgently need new ideas in psychiatric care. The world is experiencing mass trauma from COVID-19. It will be years before we truly understand the extent of the pandemic’s toll on our collective mental health, but on the front lines the picture is much clearer. In one current survey Of more than 20,000 frontline medical workers, 38% said they were anxious or depressed during the pandemic, and 49% suffered from burnout. Another poll found that nearly a quarter of all healthcare workers showed signs of probable PTSD.
When the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses questioned 6,000 of its members this year, 66% said they had considered quitting their jobs because of the pandemic. “No amount of money could convince me to stay bedside as a nurse in intensive care,” said a Seattle nurse wrote in a declaration of resignation published on Twitter. “I cannot continue to live with the toll on my body and mind. Even weekly therapy was not enough to alleviate the horrors I have been carrying around with me for the past year and a half. “
Among health workers, the ongoing battle against COVID-19 has exacerbated a long-smoldering problem. Faced with a fragmented medical system with often misaligned incentives, healthcare workers struggled with anxiety and depression – even before COVID, the rate of suicide among doctors was more than twice that of the general public. From support groups and training to mental health monitoring apps, there are a number of programs that aim to solve and treat the problems that lead to doctor burnout. But most have barely scratched the surface, and the prevalence of burnout during the pandemic has led researchers to explore alternative solutions – including psychedelic therapies.
A new study from the University of Washington evaluates the Effectiveness of psychedelically assisted psychotherapy Using psilocybin for frontline healthcare workers suffering from COVID-related stress. “The situations that frontline doctors and nurses face are unprecedented,” says Dr. Anthony Back, who leads the study. “The symptoms of depression, burnout, and moral harm warrant research into whether psychedelics can play a role in healing the healer.” The US isn’t the only one looking for alternative therapies for the growing number of health workers in crisis: at Vancouver Island University in Canada Roots to flourish Ketamine-assisted therapy program treats healthcare providers and first responders with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Recognizing the potential of psychedelic-assisted therapy with health workers is not without its challenges. For medical professionals, there is a culture of perfectionism that makes asking for help a sign of weakness. Health workers seeking psychedelic assisted therapy not only face the stigma associated with using these drugs, but there is also a stigma associated with seeking help.
However, there is enormous potential behind these barriers and stigmas. If successful, these studies and programs have the potential to alleviate the symptoms of stress, burnout, and depression that healthcare workers experience. You can even prevent healthcare professionals from leaving at alarming rates and the impending disaster global shortage of skilled workers in health care. The halo effect could be enormous and offer the opportunity to treat others in areas of high stress.
The healing of the healers is a win-win situation and everyone can potentially benefit from better healthcare outcomes. The pandemic’s toll on healthcare workers affects the level of care that they can offer – and you probably don’t need the official World Health Organization definition of burnout to tell you that it is characterized by decreased effectiveness in the workplace.
If psychedelic treatments have the potential to alleviate a person’s suffering, they are well worth studying. But because they have the potential to alleviate the suffering of many people – both directly and indirectly, by improving the mental health of our frontline clinicians – we need to invest in further and faster investigation into them.
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