There is a magic pill for mental health, but it isn't a psychedelic.
Nerds are notorious for doing in their 30s what everyone else did in high school—dress fashionably, get a tattoo, and make friends. Add to this list, experimentation with drugs.
Though the word “experimentation” has been taken literally. The trend in the life-hacker community, culminating in Michael Pollan's new book, has been to imbibe psychedelics for their therapeutic effects. Ayahuasca, psilocybin, and MDMA have been shown to be helpful as well as fun. Psilocybin helps smokers to quit, MDMA helps with PTSD, and ayahuasca increases openness and decreases neuroticism—that is, it makes you less of a nerd.
Lest I come off as too critical of this cerebral counterculture, let me say I’m in full support of drug use, which includes drug use for the therapeutic benefits. I plan on holding psilocybin groups myself. Patients will be encouraged to wear corduroy and tie-dye, and I’ll provide them with a houseplant to talk to.
My criticism is more a call to pump the brakes. Drugs are useful, but they’re not as useful as we think, especially since their use often justifies a lifestyle that leads to nerdiness—if not mental disorder—in the first place.
Let’s look at MDMA as treatment for PTSD to demonstrate what I mean. Studies show that group therapy alone is 30 percent effective whereas the same therapy with MDMA is 70 percent effective. Hockey sticks are uncommon, but what’s even more uncommon are hockey sticks caused by magic pills. And who would have thought that we could get this magic pill from a guy who looks like an extra in a Fast and the Furious movie from the aughts?
Except there’s a treatment that’s upwards of 95 percent effective. It’s when PTSDs attend the same group therapy for the same duration, and then stay connected after the therapy is over. They call each other, ask how they’re doing, help each other out when there’s a problem. This kind of therapy is overlooked by nerds because it's called having friends.
As drug use is only healthy in a certain context, let's keep drug research in context when we’re blowing everyone’s mind about the benefits of popping molly. Often with these studies, if we go Mad Libs and replace “drug” with “friend,” they become more effective. Which makes sense. The way drugs affect us is the same way friends affect us. To understand why, let’s look at what a mental disorder is in the first place.
It doesn’t matter your approach to psychology, or even religion. We become psychologically healthier by becoming more aware of our unconscious. We only disagree on what this unconscious is, its structure, and how to access it. Obliviousness defines a psychological disorder, which is a momentary adaptation that distracts us from unconscious pain. But if we make the unconscious pain conscious and manage it in a helpful way, then we recover from the disorder, whatever it happens to be.
There are many ways to make the unconscious conscious. We can journal, meditate, or submerse ourselves in myth (I prefer Total Recall). But the best way is through relationships, probably because relationships are why we even have brains in the first place. Shared experience taps into the unconscious, allowing us to manage it. When someone else talks about their experience, it’s more likely for us to see our own experience, parts of our unconscious that previously were shrouded in pain.
This identification is called psychic objectivity. It’s when we see someone else seeing us, or when we see ourselves through the eyes of someone else. The removal of the conscious self from the total picture of the self makes it more likely to see ourselves as another person, which makes it more likely for us to be nice to ourselves. And for many reasons we're not going to cover now, we're more likely to be nice to someone else than ourselves. If someone’s ever hurt you, just imagine how much they were hurting themselves.
This is how drugs work. They either allow unique access to our unconscious with psilocybin and ayahuasca, or they aid access through facilitating relationships with MDMA. Either way, the brain becomes "re-wired," a buzzword pushed by this second counterculture. The implication of such cant is it's a feat only psychedelics can accomplish, but all it means is blood flows to more parts of the brain. Merely being around friends does this as well.
Anyone who isn’t in favor of using drugs in therapy doesn’t have the right temperament to be a psychologist. But let’s be clear: Drugs are, first and foremost, fun. They may be helpful on top of that, but let's not even imply it's the other way around. When you do so, you forget the nature of mental health and why you even have a brain in the first place. Even worse, it makes you look like like a nerd.