We continue to hear rumblings about the ramifications of coronavirus for mental health in Australia. ABC News reported that the Ballarat-based mental health app Bloom has “seen a 94 percent increase since March 21 in… daily active users”. Beyond Blue “reported an all-time high in activity on its online forums [in] its ‘Coping during the coronavirus outbreak’ chatroom”.
Curiously, an organisation named “Mind Medicine Australia” (MMA) is citing the crisis as further reason for this country to welcome its new paradigm of treatment for mental illness: “psychedelic-assisted” psychotherapy. As reported on the 15th of April by the ABC: “while Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt last week established coronavirus mental wellbeing support services… [Former Coalition MP Andrew Robb] was pushing for medicinal use of psychedelics.”
Robb is now “a board member of Mind Medicine Australia”. Their rhetorical strategy has primarily been to suggest a need for psychedelic therapy. To this end, MMA has not only attracted attention in the context of coronavirus. The organisation emphasises what they perceive as the inadequacy of standard treatments for mental illness, ranging from depression to PTSD. As the chairman of MMA, Peter Hunt, stated in an interview with Boardroom.Media CEO Will Canty: “there is a massive market for treatment innovation” in mental health. The flagship theme of Mind Medicine Australia is that “the treatment paradigm [presently] offered isn’t curing/helping a large number of people”. Buzzing statistics headline their website: “45% of Australians will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime… what are we going to do about it?”. There’s a whiff of this disillusionment with the established paradigm of “talking and drug therapies” in the ABC media. Implicit in some of their headlines (mentioned earlier) is a conviction in the potential of online and community-based support; an update to that notion of costly, individual psychotherapy and of waiting rooms? Indeed, 5 hours before this was written ABC South West Victoria published “Mental health apps and ‘gamification’ of online support helping young Australians amid COVID-19”.
But what does Mind Medicine Australia stand for? They paint a narrative: psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy was “a promising line of research… establishing itself through the 1950s and 1960s” before it was kiboshed by the Nixon administration in an attempt to suppress the anti-Vietnam war movement. Indeed, in the collective memory, psychedelics are virtually inextricable from the counterculture movement. MMA’s historical analysis pertains to “classical” psychedelics, a term which refers to substances like LSD (acid), DMT, mescaline, and psilocybin. These are known as “serotonergic psychedelics”: a subclass of psychedelic drugs with a method of action strongly tied to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Nixon made them a schedule 1 banned substance in the USA. This implied they were without medical value and had high abuse potential. It produced a perception that psychedelics were as reprehensible as heroin and crack cocaine. As Peter Hunt outlines, “extensive research has shown that psychedelics do not meet either of these criteria”. But this was only after, in the popular imagination, “psychedelics entered into a long dark winter.”
It is worth clarifying the substances actually involved in MMA’s proposed therapies: psilocybin and MDMA. Psilocybin is the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”. MDMA is sold illegally for recreational use as “ecstasy”. MDMA is not a classical psychedelic. However, Fortune magazine writes it “received similar treatment in the mid 1980s after flooding the rave scene, despite having been administered by thousands of therapists over the years”. It is fascinating to see the privations of our time awaken interest in a very different past.