Psychedelics Could Help Asia’s Mental Health Care, But Stigma Remains Roadblock

By Bryan Le 07/03/17

Some experts believe using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues is like fighting fire with fire. 

Wild mushroom digital illustration. Non-eatable mushrooms with hallucinogen effect. Toadstool mushroom pile fantastic image. Magic mushroom of Asia
A matter of perspective.

Research has shown that some psychedelics can help treat certain mental health conditions, but stigma is stopping the drugs from doing any good for mental health care in Asia.

Despite research showing that psilocybin and MDMA can alleviate PTSD, clinical depression, substance addiction and end-of-life anxiety, the social stigma around illegal drugs is simply too strong for even researchers to look into the drugs as treatments.

"In Asia, the stigma against psychedelics is so strong that few, if any, researchers have asked for government permission to explore their therapeutic potential," says Brad Burge of MAPS, a US-based nonprofit that advocates for MDMA research in psychotherapy.

However, Forbes reports that some experts warn against what they believe is fighting fire with fire.

"There is little to no evidence that those substances in particular would be more effective than more traditional psychopharmacology, and they come with significant risk," said Brian Russman, deputy clinical director of The Cabin Chiang Mai, a Thailand drug rehab center. "As there is no money in experimental or hallucinogenic drugs and it would be fairly unpopular from a political or public standpoint, I can't see those type of drugs gaining much traction."

But places like South Korea, home to the second-highest suicide rate in the world, needs new solutions soon. China, Japan and South Korea regularly rank poorly in global wellbeing and happiness indexes.

Psilocybin has been shown to alleviate symptoms of major depression, particularly relief from cancer-related depression and existential anxiety. The drug is also being explored as a possible treatment for alcohol addiction.

Studies on MDMA suggest that it can help treat patients disturbed by severe trauma or PTSD, including military veterans and victims of sexual assault. New experimental studies are underway to examine if MDMA can improve the lives of autistic adults suffering from social anxiety.

The stigma of these drugs prevent any bold researchers in Asia from carrying out studies on a large scale, which disallows the studies from meeting clinical standards. This perpetuates these drugs’ public perception as illegal vices rather than legitimate treatment tools. While using narcotics to treat the mentally vulnerable is risky, advocates say that earnest efforts must be made to support mental health care in Asia.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter