Is there a future for psychedelic treatment in Saudi Arabia?

RIADH: Psychedelics researcher Stanislov Grof once wrote that “Psychedelics, if used responsibly and with due caution, would be to psychiatry what the microscope is to biology and medicine, or the telescope to astronomy.”

To many, this may sound like an outlandish claim, but now more than ever it’s proving true and could very well become a frontier in the practice of medicine.

Saudi Arabia was suffering from a mental health epidemic and the mental strains of the pandemic made it worse. People are desperately looking for ways to deal with it. One of the most recent psychotherapy methods in the region, albeit stigmatized, is psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. A recent study published by Neuropsychopharmacology showed that the substances have proven positive long-term mental health effects and their effectiveness, safety and tolerability in the treatment of major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and certain addictions.

I’m getting more people contacting me and asking how they can get this treatment and it’s really heartbreaking to tell them I’m sorry but you have to wait. It’s not available yet.

Haya Al-HejailanSaudi health practitioner and psychedelic integration specialist

It is also associated with increasing creativity and problem-solving, according to an article published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2019.

While the stigma surrounding mind-altering substances is unavoidable both locally and globally, researchers and scientists argue that if these drugs are regulated and used for purely medical reasons, what’s the harm?

The term “psychedelics,” a class of hallucinogens, comes from the Greek words “psyche,” meaning mind, and “delia,” meaning manifestation. The psychoactive substances are designed to alter the mind and create an alternative cognitive perception.

Psychedelics are classified into classic, including lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin (commonly known as magic mushrooms), mescaline, and others, and non-classic, such as methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or ecstasy) and ketamine.

“(They are) really great tools to better understand the brain and the study of consciousness,” Saudi health practitioner and psychedelic integration specialist Haya Al-Hejailan told Arab News. Her work focuses on psychedelic research and treatment of borderline personality disorder.

This point may seem counterintuitive: how can an addiction be treated with a substance that can cause another addiction? But psychedelics are indeed anti-addictive.

“They have anti-addictive properties, meaning they don’t constitute a physiological addiction, but you can become psychologically addicted to anything,” Al-Hejailan said, referring to non-substantive addictions like coffee or mobile devices.

However, the use of psychedelics can present certain dangers, which is why it is crucial to undergo treatment under strict professional medical supervision, only accessible through clinics. Psychedelic therapists are trained to create a controlled environment for patients undergoing psychedelic therapy, with pre-treatment dose sessions to identify red flags or potential risks that would otherwise result in a greater margin of error. Patients who self-dose could potentially face health risks, retraumatization, depersonalization, and dissociation.

“I keep getting more and more people contacting me and asking me how they can get this treatment and it’s really heartbreaking to tell them, ‘I’m sorry but you have to wait. It’s not available yet,'” Al-Hejailan said. “But I’m optimistic about emphasizing the word ‘yet.'”

An article published by The Lancet showed that most antidepressants are ineffective and can harm teenagers and children.

In an attempt to address this medical need, several research efforts and attempts have been made to evaluate alternative avenues, such as B. a psychedelics-assisted therapy.

A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that small IV doses of ketamine can have positive, long-lasting antidepressant effects in patients. Although scientific research on the use of psychotherapeutic psychedelics in the region is insufficient, Saudi Arabia has paved its way to using it for other purposes. Last year, the Saudi Journal of Emergency Medicine published an article describing a successful case of refractory epilepsy, a life-threatening condition, in a child treated with a single dose of ketamine.

Despite its growing popularity in mainstream media, psychedelic science is one of the most cutting-edge neurosciences, producing under-research results compared to other sciences. In the 1950s, the first English-language account of LSD was published, and research continued into Richard Nixon’s tenure as US President, which ended in the 1970s. However, research efforts were quickly banned on grounds of the US President’s war on drugs, which he declared a public enemy. However, according to an article published by Cambridge University Press, it was supported by other factors such as: B. the lack of funding for psychedelic research and failed medical studies.

This area of ​​medicine was considered a niche until recently. In 2017, MDMA received a Breakthrough Therapy designation from the Food and Drug Administration, meaning it was granted an expedited review process. In 2018, the FDA granted same status to a group of psychiatrists researching psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression.

That same year, Michael Pollan created a public space for people to think differently about psychedelics and mind-expanding with his book How to Change Your Mind. Ketamine was granted the same status a year later. This is arguably when psychedelics hit the mainstream, although their resurgence in clinical research and studies resumed in the 1990s.

“(Before that) I encountered a lot of skepticism. People literally thought I was talking about something crazy,” Al-Hejailan said, referring to the pre-2018 discussion of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.

“There’s a lot of interest, enthusiasm and curiosity that I encounter now when I talk about my work.”

With a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology from the University of East London, Al-Hejailan’s work also includes integrating positive psychology and psychedelic education, providing training in psychedelic therapy and ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. She also co-directed and co-produced a documentary entitled Psychedelic Renaissance, which focuses on the resurgence of the psychedelic movement worldwide and its cultural significance.

Al-Hejailan said that raising awareness of psychedelic studies is the first step in creating a regional environment that enables alternative methods of psychotherapy.

“I think we need to put more energy and attention into psychoeducation in general and educating the public about mental health and wellbeing. The more we do that, the more people are likely to continue to accept and be interested,” she said.

Future steps to normalize the use of psychoactive drugs include active training for clinicians and therapists on their uses and benefits, and eventually the establishment of specialized clinics and research centers.

“My goal is to give lectures specifically on psychotherapy and eventually meet with therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and other medical professionals, as well as policy makers. To show them what’s happening abroad, what the science shows, and to discuss how we can replicate that here in a safe way that respects our culture and our specific or unique needs,” Al-Hejailan said.

“I really want to open a clinic and research center here. I and my colleagues would greatly appreciate the Saudis being pioneers in psychedelic research in the region and perhaps worldwide.”

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