Since the time of recorded history, human beings have been trying to alter their consciousness with a variety of legal and illegal substances. From opium dens, so common across the world at the start of last century, to the psychedelic age of the 1960s, highlighted by the work of American professor, Timothy Leary, with his experimentation around LSD, to the most recent scourge of the hideous drug Crystal Meth or ICE, I can't see this quest for altered consciousness stopping too soon.
We also need to mention the most commonly used mind-bending drug around the planet, alcohol, which has undone the lives of many families.
Also, sometimes related and often not related to mind bending substances, is the problem of mental health. But, who would've thought that one of these mind-bending substances may be one of the solutions for treating and alleviating mental health issues.
A recent study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine examines the effects of psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms, for the use of refractory depression. The study was conducted in 233 patients scattered across the US, Europe and Canada. Refractory depression is a serious condition where people often attempt suicide and typically have a sense of hopelessness around their life.
Also, typically they have attended numerous psychiatrists and mental health facilities with, at times, minimal success in alleviating the symptoms and the disease.
This study, that was not a placebo controlled trial, used between 1 to 3 doses of psilocybin with the participants being medically supervised for a 6 to 8 hour period after dosing. Present were two mental health experts guiding them through the hallucinatory experience of ingesting psilocybin.
Depressive symptoms were reduced in all groups in a dose related fashion and interestingly after three weeks close to 40% of the high-dose group had substantial improvement which had been maintained in 20% at three months.
Strikingly, this was with therapy administered on one occasion. Side effects of headaches and nausea were quite common but serious side effects, such as suicidal thoughts and desire for self-harm, were very rare.
It is important to note that these patients with extremely hard to treat depression had improvement after just one dose but it was a very intensive study that required medical supervision for eight hours after this single dose. (Or in other words-Don’t try this at home!) It is also important to note that there have been 180 studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for a variety of mental health issues including depression, anxiety and PTSD.
America has been at the forefront of psychedelic drug use for medical conditions including the legalization of marijuana both for personal and medical, use in a number of states.
Oregon state legalized the use of psilocybin for medical conditions in 2020 and Colorado has also just voted to do the same. There are a number of other cities in America where its use has been legalized.
In Australia, the use of psilocybin to treat depression and other mental health issues is still illegal. I am on the scientific advisory board of Mind Medicine Australia, a group lobbying the government for this decision to be overturned.
My view is that severe endogenous depression, which is not a psychological disease, but a disorder of severe chemical imbalance within the brain needs many options for appropriate management. With the increasing evidence around the benefits of substances such as psilocybin, I believe it is now time that the government overturns its current position and allows medically supervised psilocybin therapy to be trialed in people with refractory depression.
Standard therapies such as anti-depressants, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are important in the long term management of this condition, as is the newer technique of direct cranial stimulation, which I have highlighted previously. But, we need as many options as possible for the treatment of this dreadful condition. It appears from the current available evidence that Psilocybin is a viable alternative that needs to be considered by the relevant authorities.