Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Dr. Timothy Leary

Psychedelic Treatment for Depression: How to avoid a Potential Crash Landing. Part 4

by James Porter March 06, 2024

Pictured above: Dr. Timothy Leary, former Harvard professor, who along with his fellow Harvard Professor, Dr. Richard Alpert (aka, guru Ram Dass) were both fired from the university for experimenting with psychedelics and giving them to students.

In this 7-part series we’ve been looking at the connection between EAPs and issues in the workplace around treating depression and other mood disorders. In the first three installments we looked at the problems caused by psychedelics – in particular the story of a depressed Alaska Airlines pilot who attempted to self-medicate with psychedelic mushrooms and ended up nearly crashing the plane he was flying in. 

We also discussed the role that EAP could have played in preventing that near tragic accident from happening in the first place. In a future installment I’ll talk about what I learned at an all-day EAP conference featuring two prominent researchers from Yale Medical School who are exploring the use of psychedelics for treating a variety of mental health problems including “treatment resistant” depression. But in this installment, I want to look at the history and background of psychedelics and how they transitioned from being reviled in the 1970’s almost to the point of being revered today.

One of the transformers in bringing about this sea change is journalist and author, Michael Pollan. He wrote the book (and narrated the Netflix series“How to Change Your Mind.” Pollan first made his mark in the field of diet and nutrition where he is credited with coining such catch phrases as: “Don’t eat anything your Great Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” and “Stay away from the center of the Supermarket.” And “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.” 

Now he’s focused his attention on psychedelics. Pollan was born the same year I was so it sounded very familiar that when he turned 18 in 1973 and was old enough to try LSD he didn’t because: 1., it was illegal, and 2, the information circulating around psychedelics was so scary, he was afraid to try it. I was a senior in high school in 1973 when a friend asked me if I wanted to “drop acid.” Quite honestly, I wasn’t even quite sure what that meant! I assumed he was referring to LSD but I wasn’t familiar with it’s scary-sounding nickname at that point. (Where was the A for acid in LSD? It made no sense.) But the more I read what was circulating in the news (in articles my mother had very carefully clipped out for me) the more I was convinced there was no way I was going to try dropping acid either. 

According to the reporting at that time, LSD was highly addictive, caused you to lose control of all your faculties, and would adversely affect your chromosomes and the chromosomes of your unborn children! It was classified by the government in the same category as “controlled substances“ like crack-cocaine and heroin. News outlets uniformly praised President Nixon’s “war on drugs,” and condemned Dr. Timothy Leary for advising young people my age to famously: “Turn on. Tune in. And Drop out.“ 

Fast forward 50 years and as it turns out, these claims about LSD were untrue. The government had chosen to completely ignore the research that had already been done on psychedelics up to that point. As Michael Pollan points out in his Netflix docuseries, from the time a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffman accidentally discovered LSD’s hallucinogenic properties in 1943 (he spilled some on his hands and had a wild and crazy bike ride home from work that day) to the late 1960’s, LSD followed the same path that any new drug would follow: it was subjected to rigorous testing. 

Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company where Hoffman worked, began supplying it to any organization that was willing to conduct legitimate scientific research on its properties. The hope was to find some therapeutic use for it. During this fertile period between the 1950’s and 1970 there was quite a bit of legitimate research being done. 

I saw an early news clip of Dr. Leary, in the Netflix docuseries narrated by Pollan. At the time, Leary was a well-respected psychologist working at Harvard, looking very professorial in his tweed blazer and a narrow 1950’s tie. He was being interviewed on TV by Merv Griffin who was that era’s equivalent of Oprah. Dr. Leary was saying that he had seen people who were dramatically helped by taking psychedelics for mental health issues that were difficult if not impossible to treat at the time. And this is exactly where we are with the research today! 

In 1970, Nixon’s war on drugs made Dr. Leary – who by that time had been fired from Harvard – the enemy of the people. And as a result, all psychedelics which included LSD and its less powerful cousin, psylocibin, illegal to possess or even study, and thus the research on psychedelics stopped entirely. I remember even 25 years later, in the 1990’s, being of the same opinion still where psychedelics were concerned: After helping to sire 3 healthy children, I was quite thankful that I had never tried any of these terrible drugs that might have altered mine and their DNA. 

But apparently this information was all wrong. These drugs are not chemically addictive (although just about any substance can be psychologically addictive). They not only do no long term damage, current research suggests that just ONE dose of a psychedelic can have long term positive effects on anxiety, depression, PTSD and even helping advanced cancer patients get over the fear of dying. The vast majority of people who try this therapeutic use of psychedelics which are now legal to use recreationally in Oregon and soon to be legal in Colorado, are forever changed by the experience, and many never feel the need or even WANT to try psychedelics again. 

In the next installment we will describe exactly how this new form of therapy works.

James Porter
James Porter