Mood disorders are among the most common mental health conditions and can significantly impact quality of life. They are often treated with psychiatric medication, which can mask symptoms, but psychedelic therapy is emerging as a viable alternative. This treatment can help people identify and process the root of their trauma, reframing their narrative for long-lasting results when combined with therapy and integration.
The History of Psychiatric Medication
The development of psychiatric medication, as we know it today, began in the mid-20th century. French scientists discovered the antipsychotic drug chlorpromazine in the early 1950s, which the FDA approved in 1954. Within ten years, 50 million people had taken the drug worldwide. Antipsychotics are principally used to treat schizophrenia and newer antipsychotics with fewer side effects are more commonly prescribed today.
The first benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide, was patented in 1958. Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs often used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Another benzodiazepine, diazepam (Valium), was patented the following year. By 1977, benzodiazepines were the most commonly prescribed drugs around the world.
The Rise of Antidepressants
In the 1950s, the first antidepressants were discovered. Iproniazid is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), and imipramine is a tricyclic antidepressant (TCA). Their positive effects on depression were actually discovered by accident. Iproniazid was initially developed to treat tuberculosis, and imipramine was meant to be an antihistamine. MAOIs and TCAs work on the brain differently, but both were found to increase the brain’s serotonin levels. Perhaps, scientists thought, low levels of serotonin were what caused depression. This hypothesis and the fact that MAOIs and TCAs both had serious side effects led to the development of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
SSRIs are a class of antidepressants designed to increase serotonin levels while causing as little disruption to the rest of the brain as possible. Fluoxetine (Prozac) was the first SSRI to come to market. The FDA approved fluoxetine in 1987, and other SSRIs soon followed. Sertraline (Zoloft) was approved in 1991, and paroxetine (Paxil) in 1992. By 2017, 12.3% of Americans over the age of 12 were taking antidepressants—that’s around 40 million people.
Despite its popularity, the use of psychiatric medications is controversial. It’s been called a “quick fix” that doesn’t offer a long-lasting or permanent solution, only dependency. Though it is usually recommended that people stay on antidepressants for six months to a year, one study out of Finland found that 45% of people prescribed antidepressants were still taking them five years later. Given how difficult it can be to stop some of these medications, it is not hard to see why. Stopping SSRIs abruptly can lead to significant withdrawal symptoms, and benzodiazepines are highly addictive.
Debunking the Chemical Imbalance Theory
The chemical imbalance theory was a popular explanation for the cause of certain mental disorders, notably depression. The premise was that these disorders were caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Given that antidepressants cause serotonin levels to rise (as alluded to above), it was reasonable to believe that low serotonin levels might cause depression. However, this theory has largely been discredited in recent years for lack of proof.
“Mood disorders are not a disease, but a ‘dis-aese’ as symptoms like depression and anxiety demonstrate there is something out of alignment in our body, mind, and spirit,” said Dr. Steven Radowitz, Chief Medical Officer, Nushama. “This disconnection within can come from a psycho-spiritual misalignment. Instead of psychiatric medications’ suppression, psychedelic medicines encourage expression from our inner healer, showing us how to reset and reconnect to who we really are.”
A comprehensive review of a study released last year was the final nail in the coffin for the chemical imbalance theory. After analyzing decades of research, the authors concluded, “The main areas of serotonin research provide no consistent evidence of there being an association between serotonin and depression, and no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations.” None of this is to say that SSRIs and other antidepressants don’t work, only that how they work entirely is still unknown. Scientists at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation (HDRF) believe that increased serotonin “sets off a cascade of molecular events that help the brain form new connections between cells, restoring circuits that have been broken down by chronic stress.”
Psychedelic Therapy as an Alternative for Treating Mood Disorders
Psychedelic therapy differs from psychiatric medication in significant ways. One is in the quick onset of its therapeutic effect. Most have to take SSRIs for weeks before noticing any impact on their depression, while ketamine can relieve symptoms immediately.
Dependency is another point of difference. Instead of taking daily pills, psychedelic therapy involves a small number of ketamine infusions for 3-6 weeks. That means no one’s taking anything home with them except for personal growth and experience. And since it isn’t long before the medicine is completely out of a person’s system, there are no lasting side effects.
For long-term impact, it’s necessary for people to integrate their experiences—an essential aspect of psychedelic therapy. Lasting change only happens when the trauma narrative shifts and key insights are integrated into daily life.
Where psychiatric medication merely suppresses symptoms, psychedelic therapy aims to get to the root cause of trauma. Ketamine is just a tool—the real medicine is gaining access to yourself.