What It Was Like Being a Test Subject in Saskatchewan's LSD Experiments
Doctors and nurses in the province used to be tripping out all the time. Now years later, LSD as medicine could be back.
It was a pleasant summer afternoon and Kay Parley put on a blue gingham dress she had made for herself before walking to a small cottage in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where she would take LSD for the first time.
It was the 1950s, and Parley was a psychiatric nurse at the Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital, also known as the Weyburn Mental Hospital, where influential research around lysergic acid diethylamide was taking place. She was going to meet up with Francis Huxley, an anthropologist and the nephew of author Aldous Huxley (who famously wrote The Doors of Perception about his experience taking mescaline).
"If Francis thinks I can handle LSD, then it will be okay," Parley wrote in her recently released book Inside "The Mental."
"One instant I am talking normally to Francis and the next instant the lamp behind him is producing approximately the same amount of light as the sun."
Parley's experience is pretty unique when it comes to psychiatric treatment, LSD, and Saskatchewan's most infamous mental hospital. Before she was a nurse, she had been committed to the hospital in 1948. Initially she was believed to be schizophrenic but much later she would be diagnosed as manic depressive. She was also the third-generation in her family to call the rooms within the large brick building home—her grandfather had stayed there diagnosed as paranoid and her father was committed, staying for decades, when she was only six-years-old.
For the 93-year-old, looking back at a time when there wasn't red tape around psychiatry and when mental health treatment was pushed to be creative, she sees a lost opportunity at the stigma which developed around LSD treatment. As researchers and institutions begin once again looking at the opportunities the psychedelic drug may possess, Parley says it's important that Canada leads the way.
"LSD opened the door to the world of the mentally ill," Parley told VICE.
"We'd been exploring important territory and most of the nurses felt very positive about using LSD. It was as if banning psychiatry from researching with LSD was as good as branding our doctors as drug pushers or something."
When Saskatchewan Was Psychedelic
The Weyburn Mental Hospital, originally called the Saskatchewan Hospital, opened in 1921 along the Souris River in Southeast Saskatchewan. When Parley's grandfather and father first entered the hospital it was during a time when treatment around mental health was very institutionalized and rumours circulated of the jail-like treatment of many of the patients. Mental illness was still not well understood years later when Parley herself was taken to the hospital.
"I can't say I loved the mental hospital without misgivings," she wrote. "It was crowded, noisy, smelly, shabby. With too much authority around and too many people who behaved in threatening or in particularly unintelligent ways."
Common treatment at the time was insulin therapy, where doctors believed they were "rebooting" a person by giving them an overdose of insulin. There was also water therapy where patients had to soak in a cold bath for shock or a warm bath to calm down. Electric shock therapy was a regular regimen.
Luckily, in her wing, Parley was allowed freedoms and eventually wrote in the hospital's newspaper (yes, the hospital had a newspaper). But seven years after her discharge in 1949 when Parley returned as a nurse she says the hospital was almost unrecognizable.
"The grounds were filled with life. The friendlier, more relaxed atmosphere was tangible," she wrote.
LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman and the psychedelic effects were discovered five years later when he accidentally drugged himself. By the 1950s it was being introduced as a psychiatric drug and leading the way was research out of Saskatchewan. The province was in the right place for LSD, according to Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine Erika Dyck. Tommy Douglas and the CCF had a mandate to reform the healthcare system, including mental health.
"Before [mental hospitals] weren't really seen as therapeutic spaces, these were custodial spaces where you know some would say a variation of a jail," Dyck told VICE. "But as they put a lot more energy into this they start hiring more people and they put out calls, and in this case overseas and in the UK, looking for physicians and doctors with real training. They wanted people who were willing to do experiments that would lead to systematic changes."
British Psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond was the superintendent. It was actually Osmond and Aldous Huxley who came up with the word psychedelic in 1956 while trying to find a way to describe an LSD trip. Osmond had been researching with mescaline and wanted to see what doors LSD would open.
"This province invested in researchers and then gave them the freedom to do those explorations," Dyck said. "So we might, in hindsight, see this as quasi-ethical, but they certainly felt that they were part of a progressive set of changes."
In 1957 the American Psychiatric Association gave the Weyburn hospital an achievement award and Parley felt like she'd "hit the crest of a wave."
"Saskatchewan was leading the field and the world was watching," she wrote.
The LSD research was initially tasked to find a cause and a cure for schizophrenia, although schizophrenic patients were not given dosages. Instead, Parley said doctors and nurses took the drug in order to feel what it was like to have hallucinations which could lead to more empathy or even, possibly, a cure.
"The most positive aspect of using LSD at Weyburn was in letting the staff experience hallucinations. They could develop more understanding of what their patients were going through," Parley told VICE. "The realization that a 'sane' person could so easily slip into a world of distorted perception was a great eye-opener. As an ex-patient I felt I could finally communicate my experiences to people who understood."
There was also encouraging effects around people with paranoia or addictions. Often, Parley's job was to sit with patients, bringing them comfort and maintaining their safety, while they were tripping.
In her own experience taking LSD, Parley said it didn't have an impact on her manic depression but it changed her nonetheless.
"I got a totally new impression of myself in that instant, and it was to strengthen me many times through the years," Parley wrote. "I, who had considered myself a weakling, was one of the strong ones. It was a revelation."
But LSD research itself wouldn't last.
During this time in the United States (and in Canada) the CIA was conducting some unethical experiments called Project MKUltra on unknowing subjects. LSD was also picked up by the 1960s counterculture movement. The move of LSD from the hospital to the street led to restrictions and then in 1968 it became illegal in Canada. The Convention On Psychotropic Substances in 1971 pretty much put an end to any LSD research around the world.
LSD Coming Back
For a woman living in Regina in her ninth decade, Parley says she has seen quite a lot of LSD.
"LSD was such an indirect boon to me that I can't help feeling thankful to the drug to this day," she wrote. "Once upon a time a few daring humans found a way to expand the mind. Were they crazy? Who knows? The real question is, 'Was it wise to shut it down'?"
A lot of researchers are also asking that question. Dyck has likely done the most extensive research into the early days of LSD and follows closely along with any new developments. In a recently published paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dyck argues that LSD could play a role for our aging populations.
"The future of psychedelics might be decidedly different," Dyck said. "Not because the science of psychedelics has necessarily changed what we know about them, but I think the context in which we might consume them has changed quite a lot."
LSD's intensive psychotherapeutic history could play a critical role in palliative care. Dyck said it won't bring cures or reduce pain, but it will help people come to terms with dying.
"It's one of the areas I think has the most growth potential, not just spirituality, but thinking about healing in a different way and not just a biomedical way but in a more holistic sense," Dyck explained.
"And you start to see that in some of the new discussions around palliative care, the use of LSD or psychedelics in that context, have very little to do with—it's not a pain relief, it's not a specific sort of traditional therapeutic intervention—it's more to deal with the anxiety of dying."
It could also play an important role in tough-to-treat mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Dyck said that Health Canada, within the last year, approved studies with psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, specifically for treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.
"They could get outside of themselves and look at it almost like a fly on the wall instead of it as something that was happening to them or with them," Dyck said.
"In a way that's a really classic psychotherapeutic idea, that's something you want to try to achieve, but they felt that they could do this in the span of eight hours, not years and year and years."
She added that if the concept of looking inward prevails, then you could imagine it applying through different psychotherapeutic contexts.
"If we are willing to accept that idea, than I think you could imagine it moving forward in a variety of different ways. It's generating insight," she said.
She also sees optimism with advancement in research tools like advanced medical imaging techniques, which allow researchers to see what the brain is doing during the patient's mind-altering experience.
Dyck said since a 2007 study by British neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutton which showed that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than psychedelics, there's been excitement in the scientific field and a loosening of regulations around the world.
A lot of these studies still look to the research done in Weyburn, even though the hospital itself was demolished in 2009. But in Saskatchewan, the birthplace of the word psychedelic, could we ever be the leader in LSD research again?
"I don't know is really the answer," Dyck said.
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