The history of psychedelics spans centuries and has included periods of sacred use, recreational experimentation, and government crackdowns. Today, a new generation of researchers is exploring the potential of these mind-altering substances as treatments for mental illness. While this focus is important given the mental health crisis in the US, it also risks overshadowing the potential of psychedelics to expand our understanding of what healthy minds could be. Regulators should consider broader access to these substances, beyond medical use. This is important because medical interventions are geared toward helping individuals fit better into society through therapeutic and substance-based interventions. But a more expansive approach could help address the societal structures that contribute to mental health issues, and offer fresh perspectives on what it means to be mentally healthy.
Psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms bind to the brain’s serotonin receptors and are non-addictive. While they were outlawed in the 1970s, a new generation of researchers has begun revisiting studies from the 1950s, and more funding is being directed toward their study. Recent research suggests they may be effective in treating depression, anxiety, addiction, and eating disorders.
However, a focus on turning psychedelics into medical treatments risks isolating these substances from the wider cultural practices that have traditionally been inseparable from the experience. Therefore, a broader approach is needed to fully harness their potential. Regulators should consider allowing access outside a doctor’s office to include more diverse “sets and settings” (the term used to describe how psychological, social, and cultural factors shape the kinds of trips one might experience) and address inequalities across race, culture, and class.
Psychedelics have far more to offer than the next generation of psychiatric treatment. Used holistically, they can shift attention toward reconfiguring the baseline of ordinary, non-impaired experience in ways that enrich what we call “normal.” By embracing psychedelics in a more diverse and informed way, we can revive the dream of creating healthier, richer, and more flourishing states of consciousness.