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Prairie therapy: How Canada helped invent psychedelic psychiatry

The psychedelic psychiatry renaissance is here. Or, at least that’s what it feels like.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin mushrooms, and Health Canada granted a smattering of exemptions to therapists, doctors, and social workers allowing them to train in and administer psilocybin. A recent poll showed that 56 percent of Canadians approve of the legalization of psilocybin therapy, and everyone from movie stars to athletes have come out in public support. As many people have turned to practices like microdosing to cope with the anxiety of pandemic lockdown, it seems that now’s the moment psychedelics are moving from the counterculture to the mainstream.

As exciting as these developments are, there’s nothing necessarily new about our current wave of enthusiasm. Like mushrooms themselves, they’re part of a movement with deep roots, one that has spent decades growing underground before erupting.

Psychedelic psychiatry on the prairies

In the 1950s and 60s, psychiatry underwent a revolution. The introduction of psychedelics as a potential therapeutic tool, along with the appearance of other psychopharmaceuticals like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine, opened new areas of the mind for psychiatrists and psychologists to explore, remodelling their understanding of how the human brain worked.

One of the scientists caught up in it was Humphry Osmond, a British-born psychiatrist who believed psychedelics like LSD, peyote and psilocybin had the potential to help patients suffering from depression and addiction issues.

Osmond performed his research as head of the Weyburn Mental Hospital (also known as Souris Valley Extended Care Centre), in rural Saskatchewan. The province had only recently elected the first socialist government in North America. Premier Tommy Douglas had begun to reform its provincial healthcare, paving the way for the nationalized health service Canadians enjoy today. Innovative researchers like Osmund began to flock to the prairie province, drawn by a heady atmosphere of experimentalism and social change.

It was very radical for Canada to commit to investing in state-supported healthcare, caught as it was between antagonists.

Erika Dyck, Professor of History at the University of Saskatoon and author of “Psychedelic Psychiatry,” describes Osmond and the colleagues he surrounded himself with as “creating a different kind of medical establishment. In the context of the cold war, it was quite radical to be a socialist at the time. It was very radical for Canada to commit to investing in state-supported healthcare, caught as it was between antagonists.”

The first psychedelic psychiatry revolution

Osmond, alongside his research partner Abram Hoffer, believed psychedelics could help correct chemical imbalances in the brain, and could also be used to help patients emotionally deal with addictions like alcoholism (Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was a strident advocate for LSD). They discovered, to their astonishment, that the patients they treated for alcoholism experienced success rates in between 50 and 90 percent, almost unheard of in conventional treatment.

Osmund proceeded from a hypothesis that was common at the time; that psychedelics caused disturbances in the brain similar to those experienced by schizophrenics, or an alcoholic experiencing delirium tremens withdrawals. By triggering a guided, safely monitored version of those experiences, he believed he might be able to help a disturbed patient modulate their behavior, or allow a problem drinker to experience a “rock bottom” moment of revelation.

But as his work progressed, Osmund and his compatriots became less interested in psychedelics purely as a form of “shock therapy,” and more in their ability to enable spiritual insight and moments of connectedness. Osmund became interested in how the structure of institutions could enable or impede a patient’s healing, and how the then-current model of mental health left patients isolated and disempowered. He compared the social arrangements in most hospitals negatively with the communal, traditional setting in which he participated in a peyote ceremony with members of the Native American Church.

This was a clinical application of a long-standing bit of wisdom about taking LSD or magic mushrooms: set and setting are absolutely important. Osmund applied his thinking to the then-new field of environmental psychology, which sought to better understand the relationship between the individual and their environment.

As they began publishing their findings in psychedelic psychiatry, Weyburn attracted attention from both the medical establishment and the growing psychedelic underground. Osmund began a long correspondence with Aldous Huxley, the author of “Brave New World,” and supplied the psychedelically-inclined writer with the dose of mescaline that produced his landmark book “The Doors of Perception.” It was also over the course of these letters that Osmund coined the term without which discussions of drugs like psilocybin or LSD would be unthinkable: psychedelic.

The psychedelic psychiatry revolution interrupted

Osmund left Saskatchewan in 1961 for a post at Princeton, and while psychedelic research continued in Canada, the rise of unregulated hallucinogenic street drugs during the 1960s severely curtailed the mainstream’s enthusiasm for them. By 1975, when a Senate committee uncovered evidence that the CIA had employed mind-altering drugs in it’s covert MK-ULTRA experiments, psychedelics had effectively lost their utopian lustre.

But today, the public has returned to consider the potential benefits of psychoactive mushrooms and LSD. Dyck sees it as a reflection of the limits of our current medical and political systems:

“We’re seeing a growing exhaustion with our current practices of mental health intervention, the challenges of the opioid crisis, and the systemic injustice we see all around us,” she says. “Psychedelics provide an opportunity to think outside the box. They open up rich possibilities, whether we invest in them as experiences, or from the perspective of harm reduction.”

It’s still an immense and complex challenge we face; one that we’re going to have to call on scientists, nurses, indigenous elders to help us understand.

Dyck is fairly confident that we won’t see a sudden clampdown on psychedelic research like the one that occurred in the 1960s: “I don’t think we’re moving back towards prohibition. The thinking has changed, especially in the last several years.” But she does see the challenges left to today’s researchers by their interrupted predecessors.

“They collected a lot of powerful and meaningful data on what the experience of psychedelics was like, and they were really concerned with how they could scale up these practices to offer to a larger demographic. It’s still an immense and complex challenge we face; one that we’re going to have to call on scientists, nurses, indigenous elders to help us understand.”

Today, Dyck continues her research, collaborating on a graphic novel based on her work, and editing a volume of psychedelic writing that seeks to broaden our understanding of the field beyond the limits of North America. Despite the degree to which the psychedelic landscape has changed since her book was published, she’s still confident in the benefit psychedelics can offer:

“They help us empathize with, and to appreciate the sense of vastness that psychedelics generate. They help us better understand the ways we relate to ourselves and to each other.”

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