HE WASN’T the first person to say it, and he probably won’t be the last, but Tom Insel’s accusation carried extra weight thanks to his job title: director of the US National Institute of Mental Health. Towards the end of his 13-year tenure, Insel began publicly criticising his own organisation, and psychiatry in general, for its failure to help people with mental illness. “There are great examples in other areas of medicine where we’ve seen innovation really make a difference,” says Insel. “Not so much for patients with schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.”
It’s hard to argue. Mental illness has reached crisis proportions, yet we still have no clear links between psychiatric diagnoses and what’s going on in the brain – and no effective new classes of drugs. There is one group of compounds that shows promise. They seem to be capable of alleviating symptoms for long periods, in some cases with just a single dose. The catch is that these substances, known as psychedelics, have been outlawed for decades.