A new frontier in mental health treatment is emerging in Kingston, centred around a class of drugs once considered almost too taboo to research.
Named after their ‘mind revealing’ properties, psychedelics have long been dismissed as little more than recreational substances reserved for hippies and partygoers, until a wave of new research into their therapeutic properties from the United States began to attract the attention of investors, scientists, and the public.
Today, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests these substances may have powerful applications for those with severe, intractable mental disorders, such as treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, and substance dependencies. If used correctly, experts say, they could revolutionize the way we think about our minds—and in turn, our everyday lives.
That group of psychedelic therapy proponents includes Cory Firth, co-founder of Neuma, Kingston’s first legal psychedelic wellness centre, which will begin offering brief psychedelic healing experiences and samplers using cannabis to Kingston residents beginning early this month.
During a 20-year-long battle with depression and suicidal ideation, Firth tried every conventional treatment, from medication to talk therapy, to little avail. Guided by online communities on forums like Erowid and Reddit, he finally began to explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, attending retreats and trying the drugs with friends.
Firth said, ten years later, nothing else has been as useful to him in working through his symptoms as psychedelics have. Thanks to these substances, he’s been able to regain control over his life and health.
“[Using psychedelics] doesn’t feel toxic; it doesn’t feel like drinking and just forgetting everything, because we’re experiencing a level of insight from our own psyches that create a deeper level of meaning and understanding of the world,” Firth said.
Health Canada is reluctant to open access to these experimental substances. Although the federal health authority offers case-by-case exemptions for drugs like psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) to be used by individual therapists, patients, and research organizations, these permissions are rare and typically reserved for the use of psychedelics in extreme cases, such as to relieve end-of-life anxiety in those with terminal illnesses.
Firth, however, believes psychedelics could be a crucial asset for a nation struggling to address an epidemic of mental illness by any other means. Through Neuma, he and his colleagues hope to introduce other Kingstonians to the healing and growth psychedelics allegedly offer: increased resiliency and creativity, reduced depressive symptoms, and a new sense of connection with others and the world.
“The [City of Kingston] just declared a mental health and addictions crisis, so we’re currently overwhelmed, understaffed, in a lot of ways,” Firth said. “I’ve seen no other city in the country that has the potential that Kingston has.”
He’s not the only one in Kingston who thinks that way. An eclectic crowd of psychedelics enthusiasts, including Queen’s researchers, students, mental health care practitioners, and community members are gathering in hopes of pushing the envelope on what may be a ground-breaking alternative in the field of mental health.
Views on psychedelics have evolved drastically over the last few decades, from being considered a narcotic with no medicinal properties to a subject of serious clinical interest. For nearly 30 years, however, the conversation around these drugs languished in the shadow of stigma and criminalization.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, psychedelics comprised a legitimate and burgeoning field of research. Early pioneers of the discipline, such as Canadian researcher Dr. Humphry Osmond, who coined the term ‘psychedelic,’ explored the uses of LSD to treat alcoholism., achieving results that surpassed any existing treatment at the time.
A few years later, US President Richard Nixon’s international War on Drugs effectively put an end to almost all further psychedelic research. LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine were all classified as Schedule I drugs in the US—substances with high potential for abuse and addiction to be placed under strict control—and cast into the margins.
Canada agreed to adopt similar laws prohibiting the sale, possession, and production of psychedelics. Research funding dried up, leaving few investigating the now-illegal drugs.
Now, decades later, researchers are displaying renewed interest in these substances due to advances in scientific technology and shifting political stances on drug use.
In 2017, the US deemed a clinical trial testing the use of MDMA to treat soldiers with severe PTSD a ‘breakthrough,’ granting the researchers behind the project additional resources in an attempt to hasten its development. Companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in psychedelic treatments, seeking to capitalize on what they see as the next revolution in mental health care.
The years during which psychedelic research laid dormant delayed clinicians’ efforts to fully characterize the drug. Despite the skyrocketing interest in psychedelics, relatively little is understood about how these drugs work and how they could be used safely and effectively.
Couple that with the offbeat atmosphere that has shrouded psychedelics for years—from their association with fringe spiritual movements unfriendly to conventional medicine, to their ability to induce otherworldly states of consciousness that evade scientific explanation, to the unethical research practices that tarnished early experiments involving these substances—and the result is a class of drugs as misunderstood as they are promising.
“A lot of people believe that psychedelics can be helpful for a variety of conditions, but most of those conditions have never been properly studied, and we don’t know what exactly populations or subpopulations could benefit from it,” Dr. Claudio Soares, professor and head of the department of psychiatry at Queen’s, told The Journal.
According to Dr. Soares, the most well-accepted explanation is classical psychedelics are serotonergic, meaning they act on receptors for serotonin in the brain in a similar fashion as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant medication.
The specific types of receptors psychedelics act on are especially abundant in parts of the brain that oversee sensory perception, cognition, and consciousness, which could explain the visions or distortions people experience after taking the substance.
Psychedelics may also help rewire the default mode network, a sequence of connections between parts of the brain that helps produce our sense of self-awareness and introspection, freeing a person from their typical habits and allowing them to reflect on these patterns. This can be especially useful for those suffering from mental disorders or addictions, which often arise from deeply ingrained pathways of thinking and behaviour.
But not every psychedelic works in the same way, Dr. Soares cautioned, nor can they benefit all people. Studies show that while these drugs may be beneficial for those with severe mental illnesses, they might worsen the conditions of those with mild depression and anxiety. What’s more, it’s also unknown if the effects that make psychedelics such a powerful tool for treating severe mental illness eventually wear off.
In his experience as a psychiatrist, Dr. Soares said he’s met many patients in palliative care interested in relieving their existential distress around dying with psychedelics, but there’s a shortage of rigorous research on what these drugs can really do to people.
“Similar to cannabis, there is a lot of hype and a lot of interest from the lay public, but when we look at the difference between what people believe that cannabis has helped for, and what actually has been shown, the gap is huge,” he said.
For those who do benefit from the effects of psychedelics, however, the experience can be life-changing. A dose of psychedelics—as some psychedelics have been shown to produce results after just a single session—can help ‘reset’ the brain and free a person from destructive, cyclical patterns of thought.
“Often what is happening with psychedelics is there’s a meaning making, so you’re consolidating memories. You’re seeing a larger pattern, a new understanding,” Rich Tyo, a registered psychotherapist in Kingston who has experience working with psychedelics, said in an interview with The Journal. “Things from the past don’t change, but the meaning of them do, so you’re seeing them from a different perspective.”
Tyo explained that during a psychedelic experience, there’s a common feeling of going inwards, followed by an amplification of the senses, and then a sensation he describes as “moving stuck energy” out of the body. Participants walk away feeling lighter, having released some of their repressed emotions and tension.
According to Tyo, psychedelics can also allow users to revisit their memories in ways that manifest as metaphorical landscapes and visions holding hidden insight. These revelations can reframe a user’s life in a way that allows them to move beyond the symptom to the root of their problems.
In one particular case, Tyo recounts working with a client coming to terms with his diagnosis of brain cancer with the help of psilocybin. After taking a dose of magic mushrooms, the man visualized himself in an enormous, ancient forest.
Standing in those woods, he had a miraculous intuition: these trees symbolized his ancestors, each one rooted to the ground and reaching up to the sky. Tyo said, in that moment, his client felt intensely connected to the land: he was a part of the forest, surrounded and supported by the trees.
“[The client’s] intention was to connect to his lineage and to find strength in his current situation,” Tyo said. “Now he can come back to that vision, that idea, and really find himself grounded when he really needs to feel supported.”
Some scientists are skeptical of the ritual ceremonies and strange hallucinations that famously surround these substances. Dr. Soares, however, said while the psychedelic drug itself may help rewire the brain, the hallucinogenic experience is also important for the user’s self-discovery. Dr. Soares is cautious, but enthusiastic about the benefits these drugs may hold.
“People shouldn’t go straight to believing that [psychedelics are] a panacea for everything, but at the same time, I think it’s a very good alternative for some of the conditions that we have right now for those who have had little results with standard treatments.”
After 25 years of silence, the US slowly began to lift its hiatus on psychedelics research in the ‘90s, granting its first handful of approvals to clinical trials involving the use of psychedelics. Psychedelics research programs soon popped up at John Hopkins University, then Harvard, New York University, and the University of Toronto.
Queen’s wants to be the next.
In 2021, the University announced it was to enter a new research collaborative dedicated to exploring psychedelic-assisted therapies, funded by a $1 million unrestricted gift from Dimensions, a company that hosts psychedelic retreats in Canada, Jamaica, and Costa Rica.
David Clements, executive director of the Dimensions Health Research Collaborative, hopes to use the program to identify researchers at Queen’s with the capacity, skills, and interest to begin conducting psychedelic research at Queen’s, and bring them together. Already, he said, there are two clinical trials planned to take place in Kingston involving psychedelic-assisted therapy, including one involving the use of psilocybin to treat alcoholism.
Clements believes much of the sensationalism around psychedelics is because they’ve been useful in alleviating some of the most complex, untreatable mental health pathologies known to medicine. Although this sounds exciting, he thinks clinicians must build a stronger evidence base before proceeding further. Most of the earliest research on psychedelics from the ‘50s and ‘60s doesn’t measure up to the ethical and scientific standards of today, so what’s known about these drugs is largely anecdotal.
“We have had use of many of these substances for a long period of time, but what we’re lacking is very clear, rigorous evidence. That’s not one clinical trial, that’s 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 clinical trials,” Clements told The Journal in an interview.
“Our primary goal is to really build that evidence, and it’s to have our scientists contribute to growing that evidence base for the use of psychedelics.”
Like Soares, Clements is also concerned about what the growing demand for psychedelics could mean in a time where the drugs remain largely restricted and understudied. Research and entrepreneurship may be moving at a breakneck pace, but these substances are still far from being implemented into daily life, leaving many unsatisfied.
Every week, Clements said, he gets messages from people in the Kingston community suffering from severe mental disorders who see psychedelics as their last hope, but who can’t access them due to the strict constraints around their use.
These people may instead turn to illegal methods to obtain these drugs, but the continued criminalization of psychedelics means those who take illicit forms of these drugs can’t be certain of the dose they’re taking, its purity, or that the person they’re taking them with is trustworthy.
“It really keeps me awake at night, because we need to find ways to help people, but I’m also really concerned—as there’s more and more growing popular interest in this area—about people going out on their own and being supported by people who are unqualified.” Clements said.
The need to balance therapeutic demand with supply is exactly the kind of issue Neuma wants to solve. With a sliding-scale payment plan that allows some clients to pay as little as nothing and a three-hour sampler class for those looking to just begin exploring psychedelics, the nascent wellness centre wants to make access to these promising drugs as straightforward as possible.
The start-up, currently housed in the 165-year-old former Portsmouth Historic Town Hall on King St., appears to be a modest and unassuming limestone building from the outside. The facility’s central room is sparsely furnished, with only a single large room containing a rug, a few pillows to sit on, and floor lamps that diffuse the space with calming, warm light.
Cory Firth, one of the co-founders of Neuma, hopes to share the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics with others. Photo: Curtis Heinzl
It’s here where Neuma conducts its evening four-day psychedelic cannabis programs, provides integrative breathwork and somatic movement classes, and soon, will host the Ontario branch of North America’s largest-ever psilocybin trial—a research undertaking that will train mental health care practitioners in the use of psychedelics while also allowing them to try the drug out for themselves.
Firth, who provided The Journal with a brief tour of the facility, was at ease as he showed off the barebones accommodations. He, Tyo, and Shari Hughson, an adjunct lecturer at Queen’s in innovation and entrepreneurship, make up part of the centre’s founding team, which is supported by a City of Kingston economic development initiative that gave Neuma the Portsmouth Historic Town Hall to use rent-free until 2024.
Although current psychedelic therapy is largely focused on only those with serious mental disorders, Firth envisions a future where everyone can benefit from these substances, akin to the supplement industry of the present. Neuma is the first step towards such an ideal as a space where anyone can come in and try psychedelics to improve their overall wellbeing.
“I think psychedelics can find a path in more of the wellness space in general, where they’re not just used for therapeutic purposes, but they’re also used [for] transformation,” Firth said.
Some may find it unorthodox that Kingston would find itself on the frontier of psychedelic therapy instead of a bigger city, but Firth and Tyo aren’t surprised.
Kingston is located just a few hours’ drive outside several major cities in Canada and the US; is home to a large military population that could benefit from these treatments; boasts a university with students and faculty interested in pursuing cutting-edge research; and most notably, hosts a keen underground community of psychedelics users bolstered by the 500-person Kingston Psychedelics Society, which Tyo founded in 2014.
On the University side of this burgeoning drug interest is the Queen’s Psychedelics Research Association (QPRA), a fast-growing community of about 200 undergraduate and graduate students at Queen’s interested in the potential therapeutic applications of psychedelics.
Aryaman Sharma, ArtSci ’23, the co-founder and co-chair of QPRA, was spurred to start the club after finding there were no Ontarian counterparts to the student psychedelic societies at major universities like Harvard. QPRA’s goal, he explained, is to connect its diverse student base to the wider world of psychedelics in Kingston and beyond, with the goal of catalysing a cultural shift in the way these substances are viewed.
To Sharma, providing a platform to discuss the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics critically and honestly with undergraduates is important because he believes these students will be at the forefront of this treatment in the future. Instead of the suspicion and stigma Sharma thought QPRA would encounter, the club has instead been met with “immense support” from students and faculty alike. To him, that’s a sign that times are changing.
“[Today’s undergraduates] are going to be the first psychedelic practitioners. Wherever we’re moving forward from here is unknown territory, and so we really get to make up our way like, ‘Well, how do we want to do this?’” Sharma told The Journal in an interview.
“What better time than to get started now and give them reliably sourced, credible, and philosophically motivated information?”
Firth, too, always sensed there was an untapped potential in psychedelics in his youth, years before he tried to use them therapeutically. During his earliest encounters with psychedelics like magic mushrooms and MDMA, which he said he first experimented with in high school, he knew there was “something special” about these drugs—which only made later research into their therapeutic properties seem intuitive.
“I felt like there was always something there when I tried [psychedelics] when I was younger, and it just kind of stuck with me,” Firth said.
Firth is just one of many who’ve been convinced by these hopeful but understudied drugs. He thinks if psychedelics can change our minds, maybe we can change our minds about them too.
Mental health, neuma, psychedelics, Queen's research, therapy
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