By Marco Perduca* and Guido Long**
Covid-19 brought with it physical disease for many and trauma for everyone: trauma that is socio-economic but also mental. In 2003 the SARS epidemic brought about staggering increases in depression and post traumatic stress disease (PTSD), especially among women.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), from whose lips we have been hanging for months, over 264 million people suffer from depression, which, when it lasts long and with moderate to severe intensity, can become a serious health condition with very negative impacts on work, school and family. In the worst cases, depression can lead to suicide. The WHO estimates there are about 800,000 suicides a year, warning that it is the second leading cause of death between 15 to 19 year olds.
Although there are several effective treatments for mental health issues, between 76% and 85% of people living in low- and middle-income countries don’t have access to them: there is a lack of resources and qualified health personnel, and the stigma associated with mental issues worsens the situation. These are countries where the impact of the pandemic is not easily documentable, but it is reasonable to assume that the economic crisis will hit where the virus didn’t manage to.
To prepare for this kind of problems that will sooner or later emerge, we need to start making the issue visible, and, like for many other aspects linked to the health crisis, be ready to resort to innovative research or learn from experiences that have produced encouraging results elsewhere in terms of possible mental health treatments.
In the US, the UK and Israel, clinical trials with MDMA and psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms) are in the final phase for the cure of PTSD. Twenty years of studies with psilocybin and 10 years with MDMA, brought forward in particular by MAPS in the US, show that these substances are more effective than currently approved drugs against depression and PTSD. In 2021, the Food and Drug Administration in the US should recognise MDMA as a medicine for different psychotherapies.
A recent clinical study on veterans, firefighters and police agents with PTSD by MAPS has shown that after only two doses of MDMA the symptoms of the disorder significantly decrease, with effects that can last for over a year. Other studies from this year, such as one published by the Journal of Psychopharmacology, indicate that even a single dose of psilocybin can significantly improve depression symptoms; and the benefit lasts for several years.
Both at the Imperial College London and the Johns Hopkins University, where the only two centers solely dedicated to psychedelic research are located, research keeps showing that using these substances within psychotherapeutic plans works – even in the short term. The pandemic shock that shook our everyday lives for most of this year should also budge minds and favour the promotion of these types of therapies, promoting them in the EU as well.
MEPS and civil society have been calling for an EU mental health strategy, and the European Parliament has recently adopted a resolution highlighting the “fundamental role of health research”, while also calling for an EU action plan. Will these efforts take into account breakthrough research, or will old prohibitionist tropes keep hindering our mental health?
We need to remain mentally healthy, also because it is not unlikely that there might be unpleasant surprises in the fall. There is ample international evidence to design effective therapies – what we need are political and scientific decisions before we find ourselves in the middle of another crisis.
* Science for Democracy
**Associazione Luca Coscioni