Unfortunately for Joseph Emerson, a 44 year old Alaskan Airlines pilot, such an experience overwhelmed him on an October 22nd flight of this year, to such a degree that he tried shutting off the plane’s engines to “wake himself up.” This event occurred just two days after he took psychedelic mushrooms.
Ever since the War on Drugs and that infamous commercial likening your brain on psychedelics to an egg on a frying pan, social stigma and general fear have colored the collective perception of psychedelics.
But recent clinical studies and scientific research are actually proving what has been known for hundreds (or even thousands) of years: that psychedelics have powerful and profound therapeutic benefits for mental and physical health.
With events like what happened on October 22nd, these two ideas regarding hallucinogens seem to be in stark contrast to each other. How could this happen if psychedelics are so great?
In this article, we wanted to address this story, why events like these happen, and how they can be avoided. Most importantly, this conversation needs to be addressed collectively in this age of psychedelic renaissance, so that these substances are treated with due respect.
- While psychedelics have been associated with mimicking psychosis, research suggests a statistically low correlation between psychedelic use and mental health problems.
- Much research actually indicates potential benefits of psychedelics even for conditions like schizophrenia and psychosis. However, more thorough research and protocols would be essential.
- Set, setting, context, and proper or improper use of psychedelics play a significant role in determining outcomes, whether they be positive or negative.
- Psychedelic Passage: Your Psychedelic Concierge — The easy, legal way to find trustworthy psilocybin guides, facilitators and psychedelic-assisted therapy near you in the United States.
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Close to Tragic: The Story of Joseph Emerson’s Nightmarish Alaskan Airlines Flight
Off-duty pilot, Joseph Emerson, boarded an Alaskan Airlines plane with little idea of how his life would be changed over the course of that flight. Just two days prior, he was tripping on magic mushrooms, drinking alcohol, and hanging out with friends on a weekend getaway.
According to Emerson, it was the anniversary of another friend’s passing, and the group intended to commemorate the loss. Alongside that grief, Emerson claimed to have been struggling with depression and insomnia, of which he was hoping the shrooms would help.
At the time of the October 22nd flight, Emerson hadn’t slept for roughly 40 hours, and this flight was a dark crescendo to his escalating mental state. On the flight, Emerson began to feel strange, like he was in a bad dream and wanted to wake up.
According to an interview with New York Times, to the other pilots, Emerson seemed ok for most of the flight while riding in the jump seat of the cockpit, until suddenly, they saw him “throw his headset across the cockpit and announce, ‘I’m not OK’,” before trying to disengage the plane’s fuel source.
After being thwarted and leaving the cockpit, Emerson warned the flight attendants and said, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” before attempting to open the emergency exit door.
The incident was described by a flight attendant as a “mental breakdown” and by Emerson himself as a “nervous breakdown.” He said later in a police report, “I didn’t feel OK…it seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on…I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”
How a pilot of more than two decades with no prior criminal record or license suspension can suddenly find himself facing 83 counts of second-degree attempted murder, a count of endangering an aircraft, and a potential 20 year sentence, is shocking to say the least (Costello et al., 2023).
“I am horrified that those actions put myself at risk and others at risk…That crew got dealt a situation there’s no manual, checklist or procedure that’s been written for,” Emerson said about the whole incident.
Luckily, the flight crew was able to contain the situation and execute an emergency landing in Portland, Oregon, successfully protecting passengers from the threat. This event sparks a significant conversation around psychedelic use and their role as either potential triggers or healers.
Furthermore, if Emerson’s actions are genuinely a result of a mental health crisis and not of malicious intent, the outrage at endangering the lives of those aboard the plane is at least a little muddled by pity for a man who temporarily lost his mind.
While what happened on October 22nd was close to tragic but was saved by the professionals aboard the flight, for Emerson and his loved ones, the tragedy has just begun, and we hope to extract the lessons and help others avoid scary experiences like these.
Understanding Psychedelics & Mental Health Crisis Triggers
It’s no surprise that this story would spark reservations in people who may have otherwise been open to the positive uses of psychedelics, however, comparing the likelihood of such events with scientific data can help us understand the risks more intimately.
As the flight attendant and Emerson already put a name to the particular state of consciousness he was experiencing, you may be familiar with terms like psychotic break, psychosis, nervous or mental breakdown, schizophrenia, and the list goes on.
But before we go throwing labels on his experience, let’s take a moment to really look at the information available to us and assess what could have truly led to these series of events.
Before We Place the Blame
The primary perceptual shifts expressed by Emerson were that he felt like life wasn’t real and like he was in a dream. This is known as depersonalization and derealization.
“Depersonalization has been described as an experience in which the person feels an inner void or distance and detachment from their internal perceptual/sensory experiences and the environment…
…whereas derealization has been described as an experience where the immediate environment seems strange, unreal or fundamentally changed” (Humpston et al., ).
As Humpston and colleagues outline, depersonalization and derealization are comorbidities associated with a variety of issues including “anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, schizotypal personality disorders, and within psychotic disorders, particularly schizophrenia.”
Another important thing to highlight here is that Emerson seemed self-aware to a degree, meaning he wasn’t entirely lost in his delusions as would be seen in those with schizophrenia. If this weren’t the case, he wouldn’t have told the flight attendants that they needed to “cuff” him.
You could read those words as either being a malicious warning to the attendants or as a cry for help in a state of panic and doubt regarding his actions as a solution to the problem he was facing.
We would argue that his symptomatology moreso reflects a panic attack brought on by an extreme episode of derealization induced by a combination of factors including underlying depression, inappropriate psilocybin use, sleep deprivation, and being in a confined space with others.
As we know very clearly, derealization and depersonalization are frequently experienced as a result of trauma/grief, drug use, and sleep deprivation, all of which were fresh factors for Emerson at the time of the flight on October 22nd.
“Going without sleep for long periods of time can produce a range of experiences, including perceptual distortions and hallucinations” (Waters et al., 2018).
There has also been a known link between “living in a setting with greater urban density increas[ing] one’s likelihood of developing psychosis” (Friesen, 2022), and undoubtedly, there are few spaces which feel as “urbanely dense” as do airports and airplanes.
In combination with the grief over his friend’s death and his underlying and ongoing self-reported struggles with depression, all these factors were the perfect nightmarish recipe.
As the media quickly sensationalizes this story, quickly blaming magic mushrooms, it’s important to be aware of the gravity of all the other factors at play. However, we also want to dive into how psychedelics could trigger these episodes.
Psychedelics: Do They Mimic or Trigger Psychosis?
When psychedelic research programs first kicked off in the U.S. in the early 20th century, different words were thrown around to describe this class of drugs: “psychotomimetics (mimicking psychosis), psychotogens (generating psychosis), hallucinogens (generating hallucinations), and psychodysleptics (mind-disrupting)” (Friesen, 2022).
But the term that stuck for good was “psychedelics (mind-manifesting),” and this was used to describe LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, peyote, DMT, and even now MDMA and ketamine. These prior names, however, highlighted similarities between their manifestations and psychosis.
However, “At the same time that psychedelics were being used to model madness, psychedelics were also being used to treat mental disorders…
At the center of these research programs was a paradox, derived from the nature of psychedelics, which appeared to both reproduce and alleviate psychopathologies, therefore offering ‘both a model of, and yet a treatment for, psychopathology’” (Friesen, 2022).
While psychedelics and the brain have a complex relationship and do seem to mimic and even be contraindicated for people with active and severe mental conditions, they were shown to have benefits for the same mental conditions they mimicked as well as surprisingly low risk for triggering psychosis.
In one survey, over 20,000 respondents “reported lifetime psychedelic use” with “no significant associations between lifetime use of any psychedelics…and increased rate of any of the mental health outcomes. Rather, in several cases psychedelic use was associated with a lower rate of mental health problems” (Krebs & Johansen, 2013).
While another study found that “a tendency for psychosis or family history of mental illness” could “predispose ayahuasca for triggering a psychotic episode or long-term depersonalization syndrome,” they concluded that “even without proper screening the statistical probability of such cases seems to be low” (Frecska et al., 2016).
Frecska and colleagues go on to say, “The majority of the encountered problems originate from the unpreparedness of the participants, the inadequate setting (the parameters of the circumstances in which the ingestion of ayahuasca takes place), the lack of socio-cultural-cosmological embeddedness of the experiences or the lack of their integration afterward.”
This echoes Emerson’s state which was sleep-deprived, depressed, and in environments which are unsuitable for the degree of sensitivity invoked by a psychedelic experience (the alcohol use in the same weekend and the social environment of the weekend and flight home).
In conclusion, while psychedelics do have the potential to play a role in a mental health episode or crisis, the correlation has been shown to be statistically low, and it has even been shown that psychedelic use is associated with positive mental health outcomes in the short- and long-term.
Furthermore, in cases of bad trips and derealization, setting, context, and other factors seem to be a greater predictor of adverse symptoms both during and post trip.
Lastly, before we move on to what research has shown us about psychedelics as potential aids for such mental health conditions, we wanted to highlight a statement by researchers, Krebs and Johansen, in their 2013 population study which you can reference for more data on psychedelics and mental health:
“The classical serotonergic psychedelics are not known to cause damage to the brain or other organs of the body, or cause withdrawal symptoms, elicit addiction or compulsive use, or cause birth defects or genetic damage.
Psychedelics often elicit deeply personally and spiritually meaningful experiences and sustained beneficial effects. Psychedelics can often cause periods of confusion and emotional turmoil during the immediate drug effects and infrequently such adverse effects last for a few days after use.
Psychedelics are not regarded to elicit violence, and dangerous behavior leading to suicide or accidental death under the influence of psychedelics is regarded as extremely rare.
LSD and psilocybin are consistently ranked in expert assessments as causing less harm to both individual users and society than alcohol, tobacco, and most other common recreational drugs.
Given that millions of doses of psychedelics have been consumed every year for over 40 years, well-documented case reports of long-term mental health problems following use of these substances are rare. Controlled studies have not suggested that use of psychedelics lead to long-term mental health problems.”
Potential Uses of Psychedelics in Aiding Those With Schizophrenia & Schizotype Symptoms
Sadly, when it comes to psychedelic research and psychedelic-assisted therapy, some groups are deemed “high risk,” because no researcher wants to take on the liability nor cause harm to those with unpredictable and unstable states of consciousness.
This has led to the modern-day exclusion of those with potentially debilitating mood and thought conditions like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and suicidal ideation from clinical research and psychedelic therapy, even though these disorders may be screaming the loudest for help.
However limited, there is research available indicating that psychedelics may actually hold benefits for even those conditions we deem as too fragile for the medicine. This topic is far too complex to go into such great detail, so we will keep it brief.
When it comes to schizophrenia and schizotypal symptoms specifically, there are quite a few theories on its origins, including theories on neural disconnection, vascular atrophy, inflammatory and metabolic issues.
“A broad spectrum of observations leads to a working hypothesis that schizophrenia and, possibly, other psychiatric syndromes are the result of genetically mediated inflammatory reactions that damage the neuron-glial-capillary triad with resultant loss of ability to fine tune regional brain metabolism. This hypothesis incorporates genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors” (Hanson & Gottesman, 2005).
Furthermore, “We consider the possibility that psychedelic drugs could have a role in treating cortical atrophy and cell loss in schizophrenia, and ameliorating the negative symptoms associated with these pathological manifestations” (Wolf et al., 2022).
When it comes to the disconnection theory, “In recent years, psychedelics received a lot of attention by the scientific community and astonishing findings emerged about the rearrangement of brain networks under the effect of these compounds.
Specifically, a global decrease in functional connectivity was found, highlighting the disintegration of preserved and functional circuits and an increase of overall connectivity in the brain” (Sapienza et al., 2023).
In other words, psychedelics may play a role in breaking down maladaptive, determined patterns and increasing global connectivity in those with abnormal neural functioning.
“Emerging hypotheses suggest that psychedelic drugs work through a brain resetting mechanism and could cure the underlying pathology of neuronal circuitry, which could benefit psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia”(Mahmood et al., 2022).
In schizophrenia, “hyperactivity of the DMN” was also found, meaning a cross-regional system of activity in the brain known as the Default Mode Network was found to be hyperactive in those with first onset schizophrenia (Guo et al., 2017).
Default Mode Network activity has been shown to be drastically decreased and modulated in those experiencing psychedelics and their effects, both in the long term and in the short term (Gattuso et al., 2022).
While this seems hopeful, more research is needed, and in the event that serious conditions such as schizophrenia were ever treated with psychedelics, a robust and extensive protocol would need to be in place to ensure the safety of both facilitator and patient.
Restructuring Our Approach to Destigmatizing Psychedelics
As Friesen outlines in her 2022 analysis, today’s “magic bullet” view of psychedelics as panaceas for human suffering of all kinds places “documenting a reduction in symptoms” above “documenting meaningful experiences” in terms of priorities and importance in trials.
She continues to highlight the sidelining of important contributing factors to their benefits, such as music, nature, and setting, which were undoubtedly key components to the psychedelic experience in traditional and indigenous ritual, but not so much in our modern take on the psychedelic journey.
When it comes to our view of psychedelics as therapeutic tools and treatments to be used for healing, it’s important for us to remember the deeper and ineffable aspects of both the individual, the sickness, and the medicine.
Friesen goes on to question, “Will experiences of mysticism, bliss, or ego-dissolution be forgotten, as psychedelics are increasingly seen as medical treatments? Will psychedelics be primarily prescribed to those seeking to become better than well, because those with psychiatric diagnoses have become victims of over-protectionism?
If we do not take stock of the important lessons that can be learned from psychedelic sciences related to meaning and mysticism, set and setting, and care and compassion, we risk creating another psychiatric science that unhappily fits a mold constructed for biomedical research.
If, on the other hand, we listen to the ways in which experiences of psychedelics and psychosis refuse to fit this mold, we might end up with a much greater understanding of these curious, and challenging, states of consciousness.”
Benefits, Risks, & Healthy Psychedelic Use
Psychedelics throughout history have had a long and rich relationship with humans. Cultures and traditions of the past incorporated these entheogens into their rituals, spiritual and communal practices, rites of passages, and medicinal protocols.
But important to note is the way in which our ancestors communed with these substances: in community and under the guidance of a shaman. Entheogens were then used as a part of a healing and spiritual lineage with great reverence.
Plant medicines and their users deserve more than what is offered through recreational use. For many of these medicines, a guide is needed and a great deal of preparation and support is needed as well.
When it comes to modern use, most of us only have access to recreational, clinical (if we’re lucky), or facilitated journeys, as they are not ingrained in the fabric of our culture as was in indigenous and tribal communities.
While we also have a past article on who shouldn’t do psychedelics, when it comes to our network of facilitators, we provide individualized health screenings and aim to provide harm reduction services to all those seeking the medicine.
With the current legal status of psychedelics in the U.S., few states and jurisdictions have decriminalized psychedelics (such as Oregon and Colorado), but otherwise, they are Schedule I substances according to the Controlled Substances Act.
For those looking to have an intentional psychedelic experience as opposed to recreational use in areas not currently decriminalized, there are really only international retreats or professionally guided journeys.
You can read more about our services in the next section, but facilitated experiences are generally safer, more accessible, and more cost effective.
Finding the Right Support: Having a Safe & Therapeutic Psychedelic Journey
Somewhere between the two extremes of today’s crazen media obsession with psychedelics and what was called the psychedelic “moral panic” of the 60s and 70s lies a productive and healthy relationship with hallucinogens.
While the potential benefits of psychedelics are undeniable, this medicine is, simply put, not for everyone and not for the faint of heart. It can be one of the most intense experiences of your life, and you have to have the capacity to experience and make sense of such intensity.
Even more important to know (and exemplified in the case of Joseph Emerson’s story) is that psychedelic use needs to take place in the right container, in the right setting, and with the right support.
Sometimes it can even be difficult to know when you’re experiencing a real breakthrough and spiritual connection or a mental health crisis. This is why neutral and professional support is so important.
The good thing is, you don’t have to do it alone (and we don’t recommend it). Having the right support and guidance during the process gives you the tools and the best chance at having a positive, transformative experience.
While day-of support is crucial for all sorts of reasons, having support around preparation and integration is not to be overlooked either. Our network of facilitators works with you to help you prepare physically and mentally, set intentions, and make sense of any insights or experiences you had.
Connect With The Psychedelic Therapy Provider That’s Right for You
Hi there! We sincerely hope that you’ve found valuable takeaways that resonate with your current intentions. To explore research-based education, stay updated with psychedelic news, and benefit from practical how-to articles, we encourage you to head over to our resources page.
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Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can psychedelics trigger psychosis or mental health crises?
Yes and no. Psychedelics have been shown to have statistically positive mental health outcomes, with very few negative side effects by a long shot. If a variety of other factors are at play at the time of psychedelic use, it could result in negative outcomes.
Psychedelics could potentially play a role in triggering a mental health crisis, but overall, the rates of this are low and especially don’t occur when they are taken in the right container with the right support.
2. What factors likely triggered Joseph Emerson’s distressing episode on the plane?
Multiple factors contributed, including underlying depression, grief, inappropriate psilocybin use, sleep deprivation, and being in a triggering setting.
3. What is the historical relationship between psychedelics and psychosis?
Psychedelics were initially described as mimicking psychosis, but research suggests a paradoxical nature—both mimicking and alleviating psychopathologies.
While psychedelics are intense and the prospect of a bad trip is viable, the likelihood of this leading to a serious mental health crisis with lasting effects is very low.
4. What are the potential benefits of psychedelics for conditions like schizophrenia?
Psychedelics have known anti-inflammatory effects and contribute to neuroplasticity. They also modulate and slow down hyperactivity of the Default Mode Network, which has been correlated to anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia.
5. Should psychedelics be destigmatized?
While we shouldn’t view them as “magic bullets,” they do have historical, clinical, and spiritual relevance.
Psychedelics are being proven across the board by scientific research to hold powerful therapeutic potential for a wide variety of conditions, not to mention their ability to invoke mystical and meaningful experiences.
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