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Using Psychedelics to Treat Depression
Wednesday, June 15, 2022


Rick Doblin believes that ending the war on drugs would end the war in some people’s minds.

Doblin is pushing the use of certain psychedelic drugs like MDMA and ketamine to address post traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and even end-of-life fears.

And he gets no argument from Ketchum anesthesiologist Shanna Angel, who says she’s seen how ketamine can alleviate long-term depression.

“PTSD changes your brain,” Doblin told a packed audience Sunday night at The Argyros Theater. “MDMA reduces the activity in the amygdala, the fear-processing part of the brain, so people can better process their fear response. It also releases oxycontin, which helps rewire the brain. “

Doblin spoke Sunday night at the 25th annual Sun Valley Wellness Festival, describing how the use of psychedelics started 2,000 years ago with the Greeks but was squelched by the Catholic Church in 400 AD and only recently experienced a renaissance.

He experimented with psychedelic drugs in the 1960s after reading Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and went on to found the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to study the therapeutic benefits of MDMA for those with PTSD, anxiety, depression and terminal illness

On July 13 his work will be featured in Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence” on Netflix.

Doblin noted that studies have been promising enough that “Science” magazine called MDMA therapy one of the breakthroughs of the year in 2021.

Doblin showed a film clip of a Marine who had been unable to control his rage after serving two tours as a Humvee turret gunner in Iraq. The rage disappeared after his first treatment, according to his wife.

As the veteran participated in MDMA therapy, he described an intense feeling coming over him and his heart racing, much as the panic attack he suffered, his body flushing with heat, following an explosion.

“I see it differently now,” he said, describing clearer recall and the ability to process more aspects of the explosion he’d been involved in. “It opened a door I’d kept locked. I was locking that person up because I was so afraid of hm. I opened door, hugged, the evil in the eyes faded.”

MDMA was synthesized in 1912 and resynthesized in the mid-1970s to be used in psychotherapy. But it was misused as Ecstasy so the DEA criminalized it. The FDA authorized studies in 1992 and recently determined that there’s only a one in 10,000 chance that MDMA is no more effective than a placebo.

Studies are beginning to determine its effectiveness for conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians, for women suffering from PTSD from sexual abuse, eating disorders, substance abuse and life-threatening diseases where, Doblin says, it offers better pain control without overmedicating people.

Doblin hopes that the FDA will approve psychedelic therapy using trained therapists by the end of 2023. One of those waiting to be trained is Shanna Angel, who operates Sun Valley Ketamine Clinic, which is based in Tranquility in Ketchum’s Walnut Avenue Mall.

She already administers ketamine, which was approved as an anesthetic by the FDA in 1970 and used to treat injured soldiers in Vietnam. Its value for treating depression came about as emergency responders noticed the calming effect it had on those who had tried to take their lives by suicide.

Angel says it causes a dissociative experience or what some would call “a trip.”

She was introduced to it as an anesthesiologist in a small rural hospital in Washington State in a town that had a long list of mental issues with no therapists to address them. Asked by colleagues to  administer it, she spent a year putting the protocols together and getting the hospital to okay its use.

She asks clients to keep a gratitude journal so that, instead of ruminating about how sad they are, they think about things they’re grateful for. Once they’re in the office, she has the client relax in an overstuffed chair and put on blindfolds if they like while she starts an IV utilizing a small bottle of liquid ketamine mixed with saline.

“The chair goes back, the light goes off and the journey begins,” she said. “It can also be given as a shot,  under the tongue or nasally. But intravenous is so easy to tailor the right amount to each person.”

Some patients have descried a brilliant light coming from behind. Others see vivid colors and shapes. Some say nothing, while others describe what’s going on.

“I’ve had people say that words can’t describe it,” Angel said. “Others have described themselves as a molecule or a grain of sand in a huge cosmos. One told me: I now know what the color green feels like—it’s so relaxing.

“I told her: Remember that feeling for those days when you need to feel relaxed. I tell others to remember a certain song they listened to while in treatment: Repeat, recreate that sense of peace.”

One man who had suffered from depression for 40 years emerged from treatment noticeably happier, his suicidal ideation gone. Therapy had made him feel more important than he thought he was, erasing the ego part of him that had told him he was not good enough, not rich enough.

 Another told Angel: “My problems are over in that corner. I can now look at them objectively-- they’re not me.”

“Those with PTSD see the trauma that happened to them and realize they no longer have to hang on,” she said.

Ketamine appears to regrow some of the connections that those with long-term depression lose. For that reason, its use is being studied in those with Parkinson’s, Angel said. Its use is also being researched for migraine headaches and post-partum depression.

Typically, Angel gives clients six infusions over two to three weeks. Some never need another infusion; Some occasionally return for boosters. Some augment their ketamine therapy with talk therapy; some do not.

The procedure can raise blood pressure and heart rate in some clients, but Angel says she can address those problems. Ketamine therapy may, however, not be the best treatment for alcoholics whose liver has been damaged by cirrhosis, she said.

“For many the results are rapid, unlike anti-depressants which may take six weeks to work and often don’t work even then,” she said. “I’ve seen people come in with grey skin, slumped over, and they leave with pink skin and sparkling eyes. It’s humbling to witness people’s awakening.”

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