by Dr. Sam Zand
Why does one commit suicide? What kind of contributing factors coalesce to bring someone to this life-ending decision? For some, the thought is so scary that comprehension isn’t possible. For others, attempting suicide is the only answer left to treat their inner anguish. For about five Americans per hour, it’s the last decision they’ll ever make.
As a psychiatrist, questions like these persist with no definitive answer. Unlike the majority of medical illnesses, suicidality cannot be precisely measured, blood tested, or scanned. As a result, the field of psychiatry is left to try to treat an illness we cannot fully understand.
Understanding what drives someone to suicide and trying to prevent it has been my life work. Unfortunately, my work has been consistently busy. It’s estimated over 10% of Americans have thought about suicide. Over 50% of us have been affected by it. The last few years have been a trying time for all of us. Fortunately, there is a new tool in our arsenal that is changing the way we understand and treat the brain.
In 2019, the FDA approved a drug for major depressive disorder with suicidal thoughts. It was the first medication to be approved for this specific issue. Spravato, a ketamine-derivative nasal spray, was the first to give our industry a glimpse into the healing powers of psychedelics. The key to understanding psychedelic medicine and their healing abilities is in their ability to increase neuroplasticity.
The concept of neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways. What we’re learning is that the brain is adaptive, flexible, and capable of regenerating new connections. Over time, when we constantly reinforce the same unhealthy thought patterns, we become rigid, literally. Those neural pathways of our brain strengthen and our minds become less flexible. Psychedelic medicine allows us to reset our neurocircuitry.
Resetting the brain can be life-changing. It’s as if we can see our lives from a more objective lens, without all that emotional charge clouding our view. Through our psychedelic therapy program at Better U, we’ve seen patients learn to prioritize what’s important to them and finally let go of the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that no longer serve them.
So, what does all of this mean when it comes to suicide?
Someone who is suicidal has strengthened the neural pathways telling them they are worthless, that their life has no meaning or value, and/or that they and the world around them would be better off if they were dead. What’s more rigid than this line of thinking? We can all logically conclude there are better options. However, when these thought patterns and feelings become cemented in our neurocircuitry after being repeatedly strengthened, logic does not compute. By decreasing our hard-wired emotional charge that arises every time we think these specific thoughts, psychedelic therapy can help us to look at life from a more logical perspective and re-wire new, healthier neuroprogramming.
Psychiatry is going through a psychedelic revolution. Ketamine therapy is legal and prescribable for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Psilocybin and MDMA are in advanced clinical trials and are likely to be FDA-approved in the next couple years for depression and PTSD. Even formulations of LSD are being researched for dementia and traumatic brain injury.
Psychedelic medicine is giving us new hope. However, it is extremely important to practice these therapies with trained medical professionals. We are resetting the neurocircuitry of our brains, so proper intention and reflection is necessary. Some say that ketamine therapy, done once weekly for a few months, can be more enlightening than decades of talk therapy. Under professional treatment, we are better able to clearly process our traumas, relationship dynamics, self-esteem issues and limiting beliefs that affect the way we feel.
Let’s release any stigma we have towards psychedelic medicine, and embrace the expansion of consciousness so that none of us are stuck in rigidity. If you or a loved one are going through a tough time, seek professional mental health support and find out if psychedelic therapy is right for you. It may save a life.
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