Over the last year or so (2018 -2019), I’ve been asked more and more about the use of hallucinogens to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental illnesses. After an 8 – 10 month long period of research, client tracking, consultation with the psychiatrist I work with, and innumerable conversations with other shamanic practitioners, I have to say that I am unconvinced that using hallucinogens to treat mental illness works. In fact, in many cases, it seems to make people markedly worse, and I’ve seen it cause personality changes, aggressive behavior, depression, multi-substance abuse in an attempt to stay “open,” and a loss of moral compass, among other things.
I myself do not use hallucinogenic “medicines” and have never worked with them. I am including in this category cannabis, psilocybin, ayahuasca, LSD, poisonous frog and toad extracts, and other forms of “indigenous” plant medicine. There are multiple problems with the way these indigenous “medicines” are administered in this country as well as their production and use overall. Here are just a few of the problems I have seen.
A Few Problems
Many of the “traveling shamans” administering ceremonies appear to have little or no true qualified training from a legitimate source. The fact that they almost never seem to live in the places where they conduct (and get paid lots of money for) “ceremonies” means that they are not available to ceremony participants afterward for followup care, questions, or emergency situations. I have seen a handful of cases in the last 10 months where a client went into distress after a ceremony, reached out to the shaman, and was told that they would have to deal with it on their own. These clients then present for mental health treatment and the practitioners here have no information about what was actually in the potions they took.
Trusting someone you don’t know to give you unknown concoctions of mind altering substances is simply not a wise thing to do for either a spiritual seeker or a person suffering from mental illness. Many hallucinogenic plants are deadly and can have long lasting effects that have nothing to do with either healing or spiritual awakening. Many of them can also interact negatively or even fatally with Western pharmaceuticals.
In the traditional societies where these hallucinogenic medicines are used, there is an extensive preparation period and not everyone uses the medicine. In the States, the format appears to be that large groups of people gather and all take the drug without knowing each other or usually the shaman conducting the ceremony. I have had more than one client assaulted at a ceremony as a result of being on powerful drugs in a group of strangers where everyone, including the shaman, is high on the substance being offered.
Ayahuasca, in particular, has a long and well-documented history of being used for black magic in the Amazon. That aspect of this plant appears to be something many ceremony facilitators in the States either don’t know or try to minimize. Nonetheless, it is the case, and I would suggest looking into the online writing of Jonathan Evatt and Bernhardt Guenther to get a more comprehensive look at the history and often nefarious use of this plant to harm others before deciding to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. It’s vitally important to understand that you may get into a dark place that other practitioners cannot get you out of, and that the person who administered you the medicine may not be available in any way to help you.
What is strange to me about frequent users of these “medicines” is that they often appear to be extremely depressed and un-grounded when presenting for help, yet they almost religiously believe that if they simply take more and more of whatever substance it is, they will be cured. Obviously, this works out well financially for the people holding ceremonies, but not for the clients. Since all of these substances create highly suggestible states, I have to wonder if these clients are having it suggested to them while under the influence of psychedelics that continuing to take, and pay money for, these substances is part and parcel of what they need under the guise of spiritual insight or healing.
Taking more of something that is not working after multiple administrations is not only against common sense, it can be quite dangerous, especially when you start layering multiple psychoactives one on top of the other in an attempt to speed up that “cure” that’s just around the corner.
I am a longtime meditator and student of Buddhism who has never had to use any type of hallucinogen to attain stability or understanding. Such use is not mentioned or encouraged in any of the teachings I have attended over my lifetime. While psychedelics may have other benefits, it does not appear to me that they are a suitable treatment for mental illness and that they in fact can have very dangerous and destabilizing effects on people suffering from mental health issues. Personally, spiritually, and professionally, I cannot support their use as a self-medication process. And in terms of spiritual progress, all I can say is that I know many many people who have been able to attain high levels of realization without the use of any drugs whatsoever.
For anyone wanting to work with these plants on an ongoing basis, I would suggest finding a psychedelic integration specialist and also working under the supervision of a competent psychiatrist. When things go wrong with hallucinogens, they tend to go very wrong indeed. You want a good person in your court if that happens. Trust me on this.