Is psychedelic therapy right for you? Benefits, risks, and what patients should expect

The notion of psychedelic drugs for treating mental health disorders never fails to raise a few eyebrows. When these drugs were introduced and popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they scored high on risks and low on benefits. They were used almost exclusively for recreation.

Now, there is renewed interest in using psychedelic drugs for the treatment of mental health disorders, especially anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are some things you need to know if you are considering psychedelic therapy. This is not the time for you to experiment with uncertain substances obtained on the street, passed around in bars, or from your friends. Controlled circumstances with a health professional are vital.

What is psychedelic therapy?

According to Medical News Today, psychedelic therapy is “the use of plants and compounds that can induce hallucinations to treat mental health disorders.” Psychedelic drugs alter perception, thought, and sensory input. These drugs are classified as Schedule I: high potential for abuse; no legitimate medical purpose.

The drug of greatest active research is psilocybin, a hallucinogenic component of so-called “magic mushrooms.” Other drugs include:

  • LSD – Found in many plants.
  • DMT – Found in about 65 different plants. Its effect is almost immediate and intense, as well as short-acting. It is believed to affect brain receptors for serotonin, a chemical messenger.
  • MDMA – Found in the sassafras tree, it is the active component of the drug Ectasy.
  • Mescaline – Found in some cacti – commonly the peyote cactus.

There are several types of psychedelic therapy:

  • Drug-assisted therapy – This is a combination, usually of a psychedelic drug and traditional talk therapy.
  • Psychedelics alone – The drug alone is used for treatment.
  • Guided therapy – A professional guides the patient with suggestions for using their altered perceptions or helps them remain calm.
microdose drugs
A microdose of LSD used in a study attempting to improve mood and brain health. (Credit: Self-blinding microdose study team (CC BY 4.0)

Why use psychedelic therapy?

At the present time, psychedelic therapy is being used for several types of mental health disorders.

Terminal illness

Psychedelics have been shown to ease the anxiety and depression that some people experience with a terminal illness.

A 2016 study of 29 people with cancer who had anxiety or depression related to their diagnosis compared those who took a single dose of psilocybin mushrooms to those taking a placebo. The psilocybin reduced cancer-related anxiety, hopelessness, and dread immediately after the dose. At 6.5 months, 60 to 80 percent of the psilocybin group continued to report improvements in depression and anxiety.

Depression and anxiety

Psychedelic therapy can ease depression and anxiety in people not facing other serious illnesses.

A 2021 study asked 164 people who reported having a psychedelic experience to discuss their mental health symptoms. Participants reported significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress following their experience. The participants also had greater compassion and less frequent rumination.

Since the study relied on self-reporting, however, it does not conclusively prove that psychedelic experiences can affect mental health. Rather, it suggests a mechanism through which psychedelics might improve mental health, which is in feeling greater self-compassion and less obsession with negative thoughts.

A 2017 study looked at people with treatment-resistant depression. Researchers gave 20 people with mostly severe depression two doses of psilocybin seven days apart, then followed up with them for six months.

Researchers observed a significant reduction in symptoms for the first five weeks following treatment. At five weeks, nine participants responded to treatment, and four had depression that was in remission.

Post-traumatic stress (PTSD)

The psychedelic effects of hallucinogenic drugs may help ease the effects of trauma, but research so far has produced mixed results.

A 2020 review looked at four studies of MDMA and five studies of ketamine for the treatment of trauma. The evidence supporting ketamine alone was very low, while the evidence for ketamine with psychotherapy was also low. Researchers found moderate evidence supporting the effectiveness of MDMA.


An emerging body of research suggests that psychedelic therapy may help ease some symptoms of addiction.

A 2015 proof-of-concept study recruited 10 volunteers with alcohol addiction to undergo psilocybin therapy along with a type of psychotherapy called motivational enhancement therapy. In the first four weeks, during which participants only received psychotherapy, alcohol use did not decrease. After taking psilocybin, though, participants drank significantly less. Participants who had intense psychedelic experiences were more likely to quit drinking.

Eating disorders

The mystical and psychedelic experiences a person has with psychedelic therapy may shift their body image away from unhealthy thoughts, potentially easing symptoms of eating disorders.

A 2020 systematic review reports on people who underwent psychedelic therapy for eating disorders, several of whom said their experiences while under the influence of drugs offered them new insights that encouraged them to embrace healthier habits.

People with eating disorders often have other mental health symptoms, so psychedelic therapy might ease the symptoms that lead to disordered eating. A 2020 study of 28 people with a history of eating disorders found that psychedelics significantly reduced participants’ reported depression symptoms.

What are the risks?

Psychedelic drugs can cause extreme alterations in consciousness that can initiate serious side-effects. These include:

  • Psychosis: This describes having thoughts or perceptions that are not consistent with reality. This state may be more likely to occur in people with conditions known to cause psychosis.
  • Fear: Some people have hallucinations that terrify them, cause them to believe they are dying, or experience trauma. Some have flashbacks (recurring experiences of hallucinations).
  • Cardiovascular issues: Psychedelics can raise the heart rate and blood pressure. People with heart disease should discuss their medical history with a provider before trying psychedelics.

Although there are risks, most studies report none or few negative reactions.

The bottom line

Psychedelic drugs can induce powerful and virtually immediate psychological changes. Some research suggests these changes are long-term, bringing hope to people struggling with serious mental health conditions.

However, psychedelics remain an experimental treatment. They are not readily available in a doctor’s office or in therapy. How they work is not fully understood, nor can doctors predict who will get helpful results or how to minimize the risk of side-effects.

Psychedelics could become more accessible as more research clarifies their properties and actions. For now, people interested in trying psychedelic treatment should consider joining a clinical trial.

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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer


  1. According to Medical News Today, psychedelic therapy is “the use of plants and compounds that can induce hallucinations to treat mental health disorders.”

    Wow. Somebody stayed at Motel 6 last night.

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