Plant medicine therapy: is Asia being left behind?

September 11, 2020
The industry is attracting considerable investment, with further legalization initiatives gaining traction across the globe.

There are 4 billion of us across the APAC region, and Our World in Data estimates 520 million (1 in 8 of us) are suffering from mental health disorder1. Despite this massive impact upon human well-being and productivity in the region, mental health receives little attention.

Out of the 520 million people suffering, it is estimated that:

  • 152m (29%) are suffering from anxiety
  • 136m (26%) are suffering from depression
  • 56m (11%) are suffering from alcohol addiction
  • 36m (7%) are suffering from substance addiction
  • 140m (27%) are suffering from the long tail of “other” disorders, including eating disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.

We see there are three primary reasons that we have so many people suffering today:

  1. People are suffering in silence. We need to educate the population on mental health, make it ok to speak about mental health, and to encourage people to get help.
  2. Access to care varies widely by country. We have far, far too few psychiatrists and qualified therapists to address the crisis.
  3. A majority of mental health care practitioners agree that our conventional tools are inadequate for the mental health crisis.

#1 People are suffering in silence

A large part of the mental health challenge is that many are suffering in silence, potentially doing so without providing observable signals to friends and family. Some are refusing treatment. It is worth recognizing that mental health education in the region is low. It is hard to know there is a problem if you’re unable to diagnose it. The subject also carries significant stigma in Asia, and one might say there is a general preference to avoid the subject.

But silence is not the answer, and with between 10% to 20% of the population across APAC affected1, that means we all know someone who is affected, and we all need to step our game up to ensure the well-being of ourselves, our family members, our friends, and our colleagues.

We need to speak about the subject and encourage each other to seek out treatment.

#2 Access to care varies widely by country

Access to psychiatric and therapeutic care is insufficient in general and varies widely across the region, almost unbelievably so.2,3 In Australia, Hong Kong4, New, Zealand, and Singapore, there are ~1,000 people who need support per psychiatrist. In China, India, and Indonesia, there are ~1,000,000 people who need support per psychiatrist.

It is worth noting that in many Asian countries religious and community figures often fulfil the roles of psychiatrists and therapists, which naturally accounts for some of the differences in access to psychiatric care.

Even in those countries with the better ratio of 1000:1, we still have insufficient psychiatrists to address the crisis under our current treatment paradigms that require frequent, ongoing interventions. Maximum patient load for a psychiatrist is typically around 50 per week, so it is plain the numbers simply do not stack up.

#3 Conventional treatment modalities are inadequate

The majority of mental health care practitioners agree that today’s therapeutic and pharmacological toolset is inadequate. To a great extent, this is self-evident when considering the 520m people suffering, or speaking to someone who needs help, and hasn’t improved with conventional treatment.

There is also a direct conflict of interest here that has always amade me uneasy, let me explain. A pharmaceutical company is happy for you to wake up and take their pill each morning. Rightfully so, pharmaceutical companies are revenue and profit driven entities that commonly track customer numbers, revenue and profit per customer, and customer lifespan and retention.

If you are a patient seeking a cure for your mental health disorder, it is not particularly comforting to know that someone is benefiting directly from prolonging your treatment period. There absolutely is a role for pharmaceutical solutions, but the incentive model here does not feel quite right.

Plant medicine – a viable alternative?

Relative to these conventional and potentially conflicted treatments, therapy that incorporates plant medicine is proving to be more effective, and the benefits often sustained for a longer period than conventional therapeutic or pharmacological treatments. This means regular, repeat visits are not required.

Plant medicine therapy also promotes neurogenesis, the physical growth of neurons and new neuronal connections. It is believed that neurogenesis is a factor in treating neurological disorders at their root cause, which may explain the sustained benefits of plant medicine therapy relative to other modalities. I’ll close this by saying that neurogenesis is proven, root cause healing is not - research is ongoing.

The results from clinical trials are demonstrating plant medicine therapy to be more effective for treating depression5, 6, anxiety7, addictive disorders8, 9, compulsive disorders, etc. Links to research to support your own education are below.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently designated MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as “breakthrough therapy”9. It is expected this should be made legal in 2022 or 2023, with ~300 clinics to be established across the US.

There is a laughable irony in America proclaiming itself the hero for the so called War on Drugs, and now also receiving attention for their legalisation initiatives, but that is a story for another day.

It is important we take individual responsibility for educating ourselves and others on mental health, speaking up on the subject, and begin more conversations on how to address the crisis, person by person, and country by country.

The mental health crisis may be overwhelming, but it is important to remain optimistic, pragmatic, and action-oriented. We hope to do our part to move us in the right direction.

Behold Retreats provides holistic wellness programs that incorporate plant medicine, facilitating journeys of self-discovery and transformation to elevate guests to their peak performance and well-being, and to realise substantial improvements to their daily lives.


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Visit Behold Retreats to read more about the scientifically proven benefits of plant medicine therapy, and for more information about Behold Retreats’ novel services.


Please note the above numbers from our analysis above are pre-COVID. Unfortunately, COVID has even further exacerbated our mental health crisis, and I will share more about the impact of COVID on mental health in Asia in an upcoming blog post.


Links:

  1. Our World in Data on Mental Health - https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health
  2. Number of mental health practitioners 1 https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/atlas/mental_health_atlas_2017/en/
  3. Number of mental health practitioners 2 https://www.ourbetterworld.org/story/mental-health-asia-country
  4. Therapist numbers in HK https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24032505/ and Taiwan http://www.sop.org.tw/sop_journal/Upload_files/31_3/002.pdf
  5. Psilocybin for cancer patients https://maps.org/other-psychedelic-research/211-psilocybin-research/psilocybin-studies-in-progress/1268-johns_hopkins_study_of_psilocybin_in_cancer_patients
  6. Psychedelics for Alcohol - https://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/psychedelic-drugs-can-help-alcoholics-stop-drinking-according-new-study/
  7. Ayahuasca and depression - https://www.transcendentcounsel.com/news/2018/2/1/can-ayahuasca-really-cure-depression
  8. Psilocybin and smoking cessation - https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/stories/mushrooms_quit_smoking.html
  9. MDMA Assisted Psychotherapy – Breakthrough designation by FDA https://maps.org/research/mdma/ptsd/phase3

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