How “magic mushrooms” could be used to treat depression and anxiety

How magic mushrooms could be used to treat depression and anxiety - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Most people are fully aware that mental health conditions are dramatically increasing worldwide. This has been happening for some decades now – and it seems to be continuing unabated. For instance, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 17 million people in America and 300 million people around the world have experienced depression.

In 2019, the American Mental Health Foundation (AMHF), an organization dedicated to advancing mental health research and the wellbeing of people with emotional problems, reported that nearly 20 percent of adults in the US experienced a mental health illness. That’s approximately 50 million people.

AMHF’s research also showed that among adults in America more than 4.5 percent said they’d even had serious thoughts of suicide. This is an increase of more than 650,000 people from the previous year. 

As well, the percentage of adults suffering from a mental health illness who report unmet needs for treatment has increased every year in the past decade. In 2019, around one in four adults with a mental health disorder reported such an unmet need. 

As an additional point, the AMHF findings are likely to be much worse now as its research was carried out just before the COVID-19 pandemic started negatively impacting the world. Mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression have worsened significantly in many people diagnosed with these conditions. People who had never been diagnosed or even known of any problem with their mental health started for the first time to suffer from anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, and loneliness.

Also, due to lockdowns and less face-to-face interaction, the use of social media has dramatically increased in the past two years. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), both the COVID-19 pandemic and increased use of social media have been implicated in the seemingly relentless rise of mental health disorders. It’s no wonder that mental health disorders have also been described as a pandemic.

New ways to treat the mental health pandemic

New ways to treat the mental health pandemic - Tikvah Lake Recovery

So it’s also understandable why increasingly mental health experts are looking at new methods to help people. This has meant over recent years looking at certain substances that might have been previously overlooked, significantly because they have been deemed a threat to society and consequently made illegal.

One new treatment method being looked into is known as “psilocybin therapy”. Psilocybin is an active ingredient in certain types of mushrooms – colloquially these are called “magic mushrooms”. More known as a drug used for recreational purposes, early studies performed in pioneering academic centers indicate that psilocybin can be used as a very effective treatment for some people with depression and anxiety. It is also being researched for how it could help people suffering from trauma, anorexia nervosa, addiction, and OCD.

As with other drugs increasingly being looked into and trialed in treatment, including ayahuasca and ecstasy, it can only be considered a safe and effective treatment with psychological support from people with relevant expertise. This is because there’s a reason that certain drugs have been outlawed in the US and many other countries.

More than 180 magic mushroom species are found around the world. In recreational use, they are usually eaten freshly picked or prepared by drying – and then ingested after being mixed into food or drinks. When ingested, psilocybin is metabolized rapidly to psilocin, which acts on our serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is sometimes known as the “happy hormone”.

It has hallucinogenic effects very similar to LSD (“acid”) causing users to see, feel and hear things that seem real – but are not. Psilocybin’s duration and intensity will vary, depending on the type of mushroom, quantity ingested, setting, and the individual physiology of the user.

The mind-altering effects of psilocybin typically last from two or three to six hours, although to individuals under the influence of psilocybin it can seem to be much less or much longer due to how the drug distorts the perception of time. These can often be pleasant and many people report spiritual experiences where they feel out of their bodies with no sense of ego.

But psilocybin can also strongly affect judgment and coordination. Clearly doing something like driving under the influence of psilocybin would be extremely risky. There are instances too of people believing they can fly or that they won’t get run over if they cross a busy road – users can lose any sense of danger.

Psilocybin can cause states of extreme irritation, confusion, and irrational fear that can utterly overwhelm someone under its influence. Frequently this is referred to as having a “bad trip”. The risk of suffering disturbing effects is increased if the drug is taken in an environment where the user does not feel safe and secure. It has also been seen that having a history of mental health problems can increase the chances of a bad psilocybin experience.

What is psilocybin?

What is psilocybin - Tikvah Lake Recovery

When someone ingests psilocybin, the gut converts it into another chemical called psilocin. Although understanding of how it all functions is incomplete, the psychedelic and spiritual effects are believed to arise through the stimulation of serotonin receptors by psilocybin and psilocin. So a person remains conscious, but in a completely different way due to various sensory changes in perception.

It was as far back as the late 1950s that pure psilocybin was first extracted. That was by chemist Albert Hofmann, who is best known for being regarded as the first person to synthesize, ingest and discover the psychedelic effects of LSD.

Around this time, some therapists became interested in psilocybin (and LSD) for therapy. Most notably, psychologist Timothy Leary tried psilocybin in an experiment on himself in 1960 to see if it could be an effective psychotherapy treatment. However, three years later Leary was suspended from his job at Harvard University due to what was viewed as irresponsible experimentation with psilocybin. Just seven years later psilocybin research in America ended when possession and the use of psilocybin mushrooms were made illegal.

To this day, psilocybin is classified as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act, which means it is considered to have a high potential for abuse – and currently is seen to have no accepted medical purpose in treatment in the United States. This means that any research into psilocybin is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. 

However, this could be changing: Oregon is the first state to legalize psilocybin for the treatment of mental health problems. In Oregon, the formalities are still going through and it is likely that 2023 will see the state’s first supervised psilocybin sessions.

Psilocybin research could be a “game changer”

Psilocybin research could be a game-changer - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Despite the difficulties in researching it, such as the belief that it can help a great number of people that research is ongoing. Leading the way in looking at psilocybin for therapy is the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. In a recent study of adults with depression, Johns Hopkins researchers found that psilocybin, alongside therapy, gave swift and significant reductions in depression symptoms.

For the study, researchers recruited 24 people with a long-term history of depression. Under professional therapeutic guidance, they were tapered off any antidepressants. Their treatment for the research was two doses of psilocybin given under supervised guidance a fortnight apart between August 2017 and April 2019. A treatment session lasted around five hours, with the participant wearing eye masks and headphones that played music.

Each participant was assessed using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale – a depression assessment tool – before their psilocybin therapy, then at one and four weeks into their treatment. Using the scale, 24 or more indicates severe depression; 17–23 moderate depression; 8–16 is mild depression; and 7 or less indicates there is no depression. Before their psilocybin treatment, the people being studied had an average depression scale rating of 23.

But just a week and four weeks after psilocybin therapy, they had an average depression scale rating of only 8. Even at their one-week assessment, 67 percent showed more than a 50 percent reduction in symptoms of depression. By four weeks that had risen to 71 percent – and by this stage, more than half were considered to no longer qualify as having depression. It was also significant that the positive outcomes were seen in different types of major depressive disorders. These remarkable findings were published in 2020 in JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association (AMA).

“The magnitude of the effect we saw was about four times larger than clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market,” says Dr Alan Davis, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Psychedelic Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University. “Because most other depression treatments take weeks or months to work and may have undesirable effects, this could be a game changer if these findings hold up in future ‘gold-standard’ placebo-controlled clinical trials.”

Psilocybin therapy

Psilocybin therapy - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Other research around the world is showing similar positive results. If psilocybin therapy becomes established in the world of therapy it is likely to be offered in the following way:

Therapists and patients get to know each other in order to form a trusting relationship, with the aim that the patient will feel supported and relaxed during the psilocybin therapy sessions.

For the session, the patient lies down on a couch in a peaceful comfortable room. A dose of psilocybin in a capsule is ingested.

During the session, patients will wear an eye mask and listen to a carefully selected music playlist to help them focus internally. Psilocybin effects will usually start within half an hour and normally last around five hours. A therapist will be there with the patient at all times.

Afterward, the therapist and patient will speak about the experience and discover what it revealed and how it has left the patient feeling. Many people report a sense that their outlook on life has profoundly changed in a positive manner and also describe a boost in mood, which can last for days or even weeks.

There is a spiritual solution to every problem

There's a spiritual solution to every problem - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Journalist Johann Hari, author of bestselling recovery book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions spoke to researchers at Johns Hopkins about their findings. He realized that one thing in common with those benefiting from the psilocybin treatment was that they felt an intense connection to the world around them, something that we all need – but that modern society is increasingly taking from us.

“The way it became clear to me,” said Hari, “was that there are lots of dissident psychologists around the world who are arguing that we’ve misunderstood what anxiety and depression are. There is no evidence that they are caused by spontaneous chemical imbalances in people’s brains.”

He went on to say that the UN (United Nations) in a statement for World Health Day said that we should talk less about chemical imbalances and more about power imbalances. Disconnection is a huge part of many mental health conditions: feeling different, misunderstood, alone and alienated. As people, we need to feel connected.

“Everyone knows we have physical needs – water, food, and shelter,” said Hari. “But there’s equally strong evidence that we have innate psychological needs. So we need to feel like we belong, to have meaning and purpose; to feel like people value us. As a culture, we’re getting worse at meeting those psychological needs.

“When I went to Johns Hopkins I met people who’d taken part in a smoking cessation study. They were given three psilocybin doses – and 80 percent of them stopped smoking. Most people when they take psilocybin will have some sort of spiritual experience, but the positive outcomes like the reduction of depression or addiction to smoking correlate exactly with the intensity of that spiritual experience.”

Indeed, the success of the numerous Twelve Steps groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is based upon completing the Twelve Steps. Step 12 states “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps…” In fact, one of AA’s co-founders Bill Wilson considered using LSD to help some alcoholics gain the spiritual awakening that would enable them to get into recovery from their alcohol addiction.

Considering the positive results of the Twelve Steps for more than 80 years and now the outstanding new findings into psilocybin as a treatment it perhaps needs to be further looked into how much of what is known as mental health conditions are in fact to do with what could be called a spiritual sickness. With devastating mental health conditions on a seemingly unstoppable rise for the past few decades, it is maybe time to look at them from this fresh angle.

“If you have a really intense spiritual experience you get more of the positive outcomes,” said Hari about those who trialed psilocybin therapy. “Whereas if you don’t have any spiritual experience… then you have none of the positive outcomes. I think that tells us something really profound.”

If you think you are experiencing severe anxiety or major depressive disorder, please get in touch with one of our specialists who can help.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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