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Unconventional treatments for mental illness

There’s still much we don’t know about the human brain so when it comes to treating a range of mental health conditions, researchers are constantly exploring new options to see how they perform. For many people, traditional counselling-style therapy and medication aren’t always enough. Research shows that relief from symptoms can come from the most unlikely places – but exploring these treatments without consulting a medical practitioner is not advised.


Illicit substances might seem like the last thing a psychotherapist should recommend to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), but research by the US-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) shows that MDMA can help to treat post-traumatic stress and anxiety in autistic adults. Used strictly under medical supervision, it works because the substance is an empathogen, which stimulates feelings of love and empathy, so patients can work with specialists to process traumatic memories in ways that aren’t as painful. According to MAPS, they’re on track to have MDMA-assisted psychotherapy approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration by 2021.

In its first study, the team at MAPS found that 83 per cent of people participating in the trial no longer exhibited PTSD symptoms after having two MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions. The substance is taken on a few occasions in moderate doses. Researchers don’t believe there is any risk of addiction to the substance after psychotherapy treatment. Similar studies have also been conducted in the Australian organisation Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine, but getting the trials up and running has been challenging due to conservative attitudes towards illicit drug use in treating mental health conditions.

Fruit extract

How could something as simple as a mangosteen fruit extract help a person who’s suffering schizophrenia? According to Dr Olivia Dean, senior research fellow in the Faculty of Health at Deakin University, ‘Some of the properties in antioxidant defences change the way the brain cells work.’ Dr Dean has already had success in researching antioxidants and their benefits in mental health. A recent trial conducted by Dr Dean showed that antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC), is an effective treatment for bipolar depression.

The fruit extract trial, which is currently taking place, will include 150 participants. She says her research team believes fruit extract will deliver results that are consistent with her previous work, ‘ because fruit extract has properties that are antioxidant and neuroprotective,’ Dr Dean explains and adds that she hopes to see signs of fruit extract protecting the brain and improving symptoms of schizophrenia.

'Some of the properties in antioxidant defences change the way the brain cells work'

Dr Olivia Dean,
Deakin University


In November 2015, the Black Dog Institute received a $2 million Federal Government grant to trial ketamine as a depression treatment. According to researchers there’s been a 75 per cent success rate in using it to treat long-term depression. Ketamine is already used as an anaesthetic and can be prescribed by medical professionals, but there are concerns about suitable dosages and the potential impact on people suffering from depression.

The Black Dog Institute team will use the funds to run treatment trials, beginning mid-2016, to establish whether use of ketamine is both effective and safe. In the United States and Canada, there are clinics where patients can use this experimental treatment. But there are still questions about how safe it is to use ketamine to treat depression for sustained periods.

Electroconvulsive therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a treatment formally known as shock therapy, generates electrically induced seizures, to reduce the symptoms of psychiatric illness. Patients receive an aesthetic and are then treated with electric currents on the scalp. When they wake, they won’t remember the experience. Some patients show signs of improvement with as little as three sessions, while others need more than 20. It depends on the individual and their condition.
Research shows ECT works because the currents help the brain to complete processes normally. According to Sane Australia, there is no long-term damage to brain function. However some people report short-term memory problems for weeks after treatment. A survey compiled by BeyondBlue shows that many Australians have praised ECT.

To find out more about Deakin University research, explore the Strategic Research Centres.

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Dr Olivia Dean
Dr Olivia Dean

Senior Research Fellow, School of Medicine, Deakin University
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