Experts: global mental health crisis needs dose of Indigenous psychedelic medicine

Traditional healing practices may show a way of dealing with mental health issues

mental illness global problem

Ayahuasca, a sacred brew in many South American communities, is reputed as beneficial in treating mental health issues. Eskymaks/Getty Images


The country’s largest mental health teaching hospital offers a stark reminder. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), mental illness is a global problem. Therefore, Canada is not immune.

Citing World Health Organization statistics, the Toronto-based institution points out online that around 450 million people struggle with mental disorders. In Canada, mental illness affects 6.7 million individuals.

As a result, this imposes an enormous human cost—more than 4,000 Canadians die by suicide every year. That’s an average of 11 a day.

In response to this crisis, experts with the nonprofit International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) advocate a new approach.

Barcelona-based ICEERS sees value in psychoactive plants as an element in addressing mental health issues.

To further understanding, ICEERS scientific director José Carlos Bouso recently coauthored a commentary on this subject. In addition, the paper carried the byline of Constanza Sánchez-Avilés, the centre’s director of law, policy, and human rights,

Writing in the Health and Human Rights Journal in June 2020, Bouso and Sánchez-Avilés argued for the recognition of the “immense value of traditional medicines based on psychoactive plants”.

These medicines include ayahuasca, a sacred brew in many Indigenous communities in South America.

Bridging Indigenous knowledge and western science is “vital” in improving mental health

Reached by phone in Barcelona, Bouso told CannCentral that there’s growing appreciation of Indigenous knowledge in ecology.

Developed outside western science, traditional environmental practices have proven effective in protecting biodiversity. In addition, they have demonstrated value in managing land and water ecosystems while reducing carbon emissions.

According to Bouso, traditional medicine utilizing psychoactive substances deserve a similar level of respect in the mental health field.

“A new kind of bridging between Indigenous and western knowledge systems is vital,” Bouso said.

Bouso has trained in western science. In addition, he practises clinical psychology and has a doctorate in pharmacology.

According to him, research must not subject Indigenous knowledge about mental health to demands of “falsifiability and testability” in western laboratories.

“Mental heath is not like an infectious disease, where there is a unequivocal relationship between the pharmacological treatment and the cure,” Bouso pointed out.

Furthermore, Bouso declared that western science has a “limited conception of mental health as a brain disease”.

Bouso and Sánchez-Avilés addressed these and other issues discussed in the Health and Human Rights Journal.

Harvard University Press publishes it at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

The ICEERS researchers have headlined the commentary “Traditional Healing Practices Involving Psychoactive Plants and the Global Mental Health Agenda: Opportunities, Pitfalls, and Challenges in the ‘Right to Science’ Framework”.

“Several Western epistemologies—such as psychoanalysis, certain approaches in psychology, and other social sciences (including certain ethnographies within anthropology)—cannot always meet these falsifiability and testability criteria,” the authors note.

Authors cite potential dangers of psychiatric drugs

They also write that “research in biological psychiatry might not always meet the criteria of falsifiability and testability, since it has various flaws.”

That’s because the cause and development of mental disorders is “completely unknown”.

In addition, they maintain, “There is not a single psychopharmacological treatment that offers a cure.”

Furthermore, they emphasized that “at best, psychiatric drugs serve to treat acute symptoms (such as panic attacks and psychotic breakdowns) but over the long term can be ineffective and potentially dangerous.”

In conclusion, they offer a solution.

“A broader framework regarding the assessment of mental health systems should be developed in which different…approaches, including indigenous ones, are considered,” Bouso and Sánchez-Avilés assert.

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