The State of Mental Health Needs a Coup d’Etat



It has been said about our understanding of the brain generally and emotional disorders specifically that we in are in the dark; fumbling around as blindly as the geneticists were before the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Until the introduction of Prozac in 1988 psychiatric drugs were a cottage industry worth about $800 million. By 2010, the psych-meds business had ballooned to $70 billion and the once admired profession of Freud and Jung had been reduced to a drug delivery method. After increasing over 87 times some impressive results in the mental health of the population might be expected, however the number of Americans claiming mental health disability has doubled in the same time period.

There’s some evidence as well that people who suffer mental illness and don’t receive medication do far better in the long run. Indeed it may be that the very bio-amine brain chemical messenger the drug is enhancing becomes destabilized and even less functional in the long–term.

Psychiatry has been predicated on a simple binary oppositional manifold of theories. Depressed? Anti-depressants. Psychotic? Anti-psychotics. Attention deficit? Attention stimulant. Unstable mood? Mood stabilizer. The idea is that chemical imbalances are the source of distress. This harkens back to the notion that earth, air and fire are out of kilter as we see in Eastern Medicine and reflected in the ancient West by Hippocrates’ and his “humors” – body fluids that when imbalanced cause disease.

In the modern conceptualization the lack of energy in depression is a deficit in noradrenaline (norepinephrine), the lack of motivation and pleasure blamed on dopamine and the presence of anxiety is supposedly due to insufficient serotonin. A new class of drugs, touted as a breakthrough, called the “triple reuptake inhibitor” worked on all three neurotransmitters but offered no clinical advantage over the existing medications.

In other words you can tickle the bio-amines (noradrenaline, dopamine, serotonin), a thousand ways to Sunday until the cows come home but as my old shrink back in Ottawa used to say of Paxil vs. Prozac, it just boils down to, “six of one, half dozen of the other.” Like fixing a computer by adding more current to the battery, we add more chemicals to the matrix of the brain, occasionally resulting in catastrophe but always resulting in profit.

Enter Shamanic Graffiti; my book about shamanism, psychedelic therapy and alternative models of the brain that may explain some of the frustrating results psychiatry has been plagued by. Highlighting the theories of Drs. Grof and Leary, sometimes regarded as the godfather and the pope of LSD respectively; illustrating their ideas with some thirty-five brains and minds, this unique, groundbreaking book stands out amongst psychedelic literature. And the reason is I have stood on the necks of giants.

When psychiatrist Stanislav Grof left Prague in 1967, he left behind an eighteen bed locked ward exclusively devoted to LSD therapy. A few years after he arrived in the United States he was appointed director of psychiatric research at Johns Hopkins. This was combined with his appointment to the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, the world’s most pre-eminent psychedelic clinic, that began in Baltimore in 1962 in the unremarkable Spring Grove Hospital. However, seven unusually culturally dense years later in 1969, the new facility was built with the third floor dedicated just to basic chemistry.


Maryland Psychiatric Research Center

In 1961 chemist Alexander Shulgin created a biodegradable pesticide called zectran, Dow Chemical bought the patent rights in exchange for giving the young scientist carte blanche to research what he wanted. Although separating his psychedelic research from Dow chemical later he invented 230 brand new psychoactive substances and studied their effects before his death in 2014. In the early sixties the wave of psychedelic science was approaching a crest every bit as high and wild as the youth culture that provided the primary audience and consumer base.

Then a full-bore moral panic erupted and the entire legal psychedelic therapy field was eliminated by the time Reagan took office in 1981. By 1973, seeing the writing on the wall, Grof left the Maryland Psychedelic Research Center and moved to Esalen, a Southern California spiritual retreat to write. What he wrote was a new theory of the mind where three levels of the unconscious, biographical, perinatal (birth-trauma) and transpersonal combine to forge our reality. Psychedelics, acting as “non-specific amplifiers” and combined with introspection, lead the mind to its area of “highest emotional charge”, representing a blockage in one more of the unconscious levels. The challenge is to encourage the expression and working through of the energetic traffic jams until they are resolved and the positive aspects of the unconscious can manifest.

While Grof wrote beside the Pacific Ocean at Esalen, a theorist so prolific he was nicknamed “theory Leary” was being forced into solitary confinement at Folsom Federal Prison a few sunshine splattered miles away. Sitting in the hole, with only the half-pencil and legal brief afforded him, Dr. Timothy Leary began writing Neurologic where he described the Serial Imprinting of the Eight-Circuit Brain. Positing four terrestrial circuits, bio-survival (opiates and large doses of alcohol), mammalian (alcohol), intellectual (stimulants) and social (Prozac, MDMA and sex hormones), that are imprinted during critical windows, usually becoming almost totally fossilized by the time of sexual activity.

Along with the lower half are the four post-terrestrial circuits that allow for reprogramming the lower four. The brains better half is composed of the neuro-somatic – hedonic-aesthetic circuit with cannabis, the neuro-electric self-meta-programmer circuit with LSD, Mescaline, Psilocybin etc., the neuro-genetic DNA circuit with DMT and the neuro-atomic with ketamine.

But how do these theories measure up in the field?

In 2007 I made a student film with Frank Ogden about his experiences with Voodoo in Haiti but also about his work as a therapist at Hollywood Hospital, the New Westminster “sanitarium” that housed an LSD/Mescaline clinic from 1957-1975. When medical director and owner Dr. Ross MacLean died in the late 70s he left Frank the files, when Frank died in the early teens he had them under his bed. But five years before in 2008 I was given the keys to the kingdom after much cajoling and persuading and I finally cracked the files and started writing.

What are we really? What’s actually in the unconscious, at least the unconscious of the thousand souls who decided to accept the call to adventure and take the Hollywood Hospital leap?

The only time since the late 1950s and early 1960s that psychedelics have generated such scientific and popular excitement is right now. MDMA and Psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are on schedule to be legal prescription drugs by 2021 and ayahuasca tourism is bringing thousands of neuronauts to the Amazon to drink their hallucinogenic tea. Hysteria, fear and sensationalism conspired to bring a ferocious backlash to the previous era of exploration, where are we going now?

Shamanic Graffiti adds some light to the heat.