High Country: Top takeaways from the Aspen Ideas Festival’s psychedelics panel
Axios’ Alison Snyder, Dr. Gita Vaid and Dr. Rachel Yehuda examine the ’Shroom Boom’ as viable psychotherapy treatment.
In the two years since the Aspen Ideas Festival first addressed psychedelics on its prestigious stage during the session “Bad Drugs Are Looking Good,” the needle has moved further toward mainstream acceptance of these still-criminalized substances.
A recent New York Times article titled “The Psychedelic Revolution Is Coming. Psychiatry May Never Be the Same,” credited new studies in the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature Medicine, which lauded the success of treating PTSD and depression with MDMA and psilocybin, as “a significant leap forward.” In May, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to launch Phase 1 clinical trials into MDMA-assisted therapy.
With longtime decriminalization and legalization efforts coming to state-by-state fruition like cannabis — just last week, a California Assembly committee approved a Senate-passed bill to legalize possession of psychedelics — the reality of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is closer than ever. It’s why the Aspen Institute decided on another deep dive for the Aspen Ideas Festival (an in-person and online hybrid edition that ran from June 28-July 1) in 2021.
“We really wanted to dive into the kinds of research and ideas that could easily define our future,” shared Kitty Boone, vice president of public programs and executive director of the Aspen Ideas Festival. “How we treat post-traumatic stress and depression — not illnesses with obvious fixes — is very important to literally millions of people at home and abroad. Perhaps we need to open our minds to these ideas as being researched by legitimate scientists and imagine better paths to treatments.”
Moderator Alison Snyder, managing editor at Axios, “The Shroom Boom and other Therapeutic Psychedelics for the Win” examined the research renaissance fueled by the clinical use of psychedelic drugs — from psilocybin to MDMA to ketamine — to help treat psychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Snyder spoke with two leaders at the forefront of the field: Dr. Gita Vaid, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and faculty member of the Ketamine Training Center and Institute for Psychoanalytic Education (IPE) affiliated with New York University; and Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of the Center for the Study of Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma, vice chair of Veterans Affairs for the Psychiatry Department and professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the director of mental health at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Yehuda was also a panelist on “A Survey of the Healing Potential of Psychedelics” as part of the Aspen Brain Institute’s Expert Series last fall.
Mental health and substance use disorders — possibly more prevalent during the pandemic — are a leading cause of disability globally. Even Wall Street is taking notice with psychedelic drug developers like Mind Medicine (MNMD), Compass Pathways (CMPS), Field Trip Health (FTRPF), Cybin (CLXPF) and Numinus Wellness (LKYSF) — all identified by U.S. News & World Report as the leading “5 psychedelic stocks to watch.”
In case you missed it, here are three top Q&A takeaways from the Aspen Ideas Festival’s look into psychedelics as a viable psychotherapy treatment.
Q: What has happened that we are now discussing psychedelics in research institutions like Mount Sinai, Johns Hopkins, on Wall Street and at the Aspen Ideas Festival? What’s going on in this field that (it) has gotten to this point?
Dr. Rachel Yehuda: I think that people have started to recognize that we need to look out of the box for solutions to the problems of mental health. Especially mental health conditions that are related somehow to trauma exposure or the things that happened to us. And we do have treatments for trauma-related disorders like PTSD and depression or anxiety, but most people who go to therapy feel that they have to continue with therapy, that they’re not getting over a really important hurdle that is allowing them to kind of reclaim their lives or reach kind of ultimate feeling and wellness.
Q: There’s this idea of the brain being rewired. Do we understand why that is? What’s going on from a plasticity standpoint of what’s happening?
Dr. Gita Vaid: I’m very excited about what I’m seeing in my office, because as a clinician, I’ve just been amazed at the results that I have achieved with individuals in private practice. It’s just a complete game changer, and it’s such a different process than what we’re used to with psychotherapy. Some of it is tapping into the innate intelligence that the body and the mind have toward healing. In medicine, we like to think that we heal people, but actually as physicians, mostly we remove obstacles (on the path to) healing. And psychedelics really tap into (that) potential.
Q: We’re talking about different drugs here, but describe the experience for a patient who comes in — whether in a research setting or a clinical setting — what does this look like? Who’s in the room?
Dr. Rachel Yehuda: (First), two therapists spend a lot of time getting to know the patient and prepare (them) to work with the psychedelic drug and get to know what their (traumas) were like and help them really understand what it means to take a psychedelic and what that experience might be like for them. On the day that the psychedelic will be administered, there are, again, two therapists. The patient takes the (drug) and within an hour starts to feel the effects. And then the patient kind of settles in and experiences music … there’s eye shades … and they’re revisiting moments from their past in the presence of therapists that are holding space and following their process. At the end of eight hours, a person has done a lot of processing of trauma, the drug wears off and is completely out of one’s system. The next day, the therapists work with the patient to integrate and talk about what insights were made and what was seen during the journey.
To watch the “Shroom Boom” discussion in full along with the complete program of 2021 Aspen Ideas Festival sessions, visit the Aspen Institute’s YouTube channel: youtube.com/c/aspeninstitute. And to learn more about the Aspen Institute’s year-round programming, visit aspeninstitute.org (@aspeninstitute).
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Former race-car driver, current Lewis Cellars winemaker Randy Lewis hosts Aspen dinner alongside chef Byron Gomez as part of the “Aspen Summer Supper Club Series” at 7908.