PSYCHIATRY, PSYCHEDELICS AND MEANING
Psychiatry, during its relatively short history has always suffered a good deal of internal conflict because its major concerns is human consciousness which still remains one of the least understood aspects of the human experience. The major debate in modern psychiatry has been between the psychologically minded and the biologically minded: that is what is the meaning of the psychiatric patient’s aberrations and ailments as opposed to what is causing them. In the so called psychoanalytic or Freudian era of the 20th century, a phenomenological approach was preferred but currently a biological or organic approach dominates psychiatry. However in recent years with the failure of science to provide adequate biological explanations for most psychiatric illnesses, the lack of progress in the development of new and effective drugs which cure psychiatric illness as opposed to simply suppressing symptoms, the increasing rates of psychiatric morbidity and suicide, and the failure of psychiatry to produce valid psychiatric diagnoses, there is once again an increasing demand upon the profession to consider alternative approaches or even paradigms.
Currently shunned and viewed with suspicion by mainstream psychiatry, psychedelic science and its current renaissance in the northern hemisphere, offers a novel bridging of the above schism that continues to divide the psychiatric profession. On the one hand psychedelic drugs and their physiological effects are pharmacologically interesting and unique and hopefully will continue to provide valuable insights into brain functioning. But also, from a purely psychological viewpoint, these drugs are well known for their ability to greatly enhance and assist the practice of psychotherapy and help precipitate major attitudinal and behavioral changes in individuals suffering from a range of psychiatric conditions.
Throughout their history, human beings have tended toward a meaning seeking and meaning making journey. People generally feel and function better when in touch with an overriding and sustaining story or narrative, be it collectively engaging or of a purely personal nature. To have purpose and a meaningful life, and freedom and encouragement to pursue such a path through action and thought, is undoubtedly good for mental health as was emphasized by the late 20th century psychiatrist, Victor Frankl.
Meaning itself implies connection, connection to something beyond the personal ego. Whether it be to other people, or living things in general, or to nature and the universe as a whole, even to an imagined sacred, such a connection or connections, counter the experience of alienation, loneliness and isolation that occurs so frequently today in people suffering from mental ill health. It has been argued that now God is dead, our contemporary materialistic and technologically driven society encourages the aggrandizement, but also the isolation of, the ego or individual, and so provides no deep, selfless, or sustaining range of values or meanings without which it is much harder for people to make sense of their lives.
The so called mystical experience which may be spontaneous or manifested through a number of different techniques such as meditation or dance, is now being investigated in clinical settings through psychedelic medical research. What is already well known is that these medicines provide the individual albeit temporarily, with a new worldview or “Weltanschauung” which may be radically novel in a meaningful sense. Particularly a sense of unity with all things, but also a sense of sacredness or reverence, noetic revelation, a sense of joy or bliss, the transcendence of time and space, and being at ease with paradox and ineffability, these are the experiences potentially offered during the so called mystical experience. Above all such an experience offers a profound sense of connection and even though it may be temporary, it may be enough to counter the psychopathology present in many psychiatric presentations brought about, not by biochemical factors, but rather by deficits or distortions of meaning and belief. In other words psychedelic medicines may be a valuable treatment option or potential cure for psychic alienation and isolation.
DR NIGEL STRAUSS has been a psychiatrist for 40 years working largely in the area of medico legal psychiatry. He is particularly intersted in non ordinary states of consciousness and how they may be used to treat certain psychological conditions. He is currently advocating for the initiation of psychedelic research in Australia.