“If you are chronically down, it is a lifelong fight to keep from sinking”, according to Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation. But for those exhausted from fighting, there is hope on the horizon.
Most of us have felt down at some point in our life. Sometimes, all that is needed is a reset, a relaxing holiday or perhaps a change of job. But for many, these symptoms won’t go away, even after a few weeks on a sun lounger in Thailand. Depression doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone, looming over every aspect of your life and generally just taking the joy out of living.
In recent years, several scientific studies have reached promising conclusions on the effectiveness of psilocybin (the psychedelic compound found in some species of mushroom) to treat psychiatric disorders, including depression. Here we delve a little into the facts to give you an overview of the findings of three studies by Robin Carhart-Harris and his enlightened team of scientists at Imperial College London.
According to their clinical trials, the use of psilocybin coupled with psychological support is a highly effective treatment for depression. And, what is more, it has proven to work even in patients with treatment-resistant depression.
The astounding results are all todo with blood flow in the brain, particularly to the amygdala (that’s a tiny part of the brain for those of us without a science degree), which is overly active in people with depression. They say that using psilocybin causes ‘changes in resting-state brain blood flow and functional connectivity post-treatment…decreased blood flow was found to correlate (in the amygdala) with reductions in depressive mood’.
The studies have shown that the ‘after-glow’ phase following a psychedelic experience is characterised by mood improvements and stress relief. Also, there seem to be lasting positive effects, even with only one or two doses and ‘reductions in depressive symptoms at 5 weeks were predicted by the quality of the acute psychedelic experience’ (Carhart-Harris et al. 2018, p399).
As you can see in Fig. 1, the results indicate that psilocybin is even more effective than traditional medication or therapy and there is still a marked improvement even 3 months post-use.
In an interview with New Scientist, Carhart-Harris states that participants often describe profound feelings of connectedness within themselves, to other people and to nature, as well as insight and disintegration of the all-too-elusive ‘self’. This is often a process of emotional release and catharsis. ‘Even people who have a bad trip feel changed for the better afterwards.’
The team also suggest that context of the psychedelic experience seemed to be important, for example the environment (think pleasant music and lighting) and rapport with those present and guiding the trip, although further research needs to be done to explain exactly how this effects the result. Their rigorous preparation coupled with the relative safety of psilocybin ensured that there were no serious adverse side-effects experienced by any of the patients.
So, in conclusion, administered in a supportive environment, with proper psychological care, psilocybin can be used to ‘facilitate emotional breakthrough and renewed perspective.’
“Treatment with psilocybin produced rapid and sustained antidepressant effects.” Carhart-Harris et al., 2017
Although trials on a larger scale are still needed to reinforce the findings, other studies from John HopkinsUniversity and New York University have reached similar conclusions. There is also huge interest in this research from the most distinguished scientists in the field. In a special issue of the scientific journal Psychopharmacology dedicated to the subject, those contributing looked like a ‘who’s who’ of American and European psychiatry, which should reassure any waverers that psilocybin treatment is well within the accepted scope of modern psychiatry.
But what are the implications of these findings? Well, they could have far-reaching effects given the proliferation of depression and anxiety in our society.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting over 300 million people. This results in many more millions of days absent from work and a loss of economic productivity. Mental health is becoming the number one concern for many countries, with around 1 in 4 people being affected in Europe each year.
Anti-depressants don’t work for up to half of people who take them. Far too many people have experienced depression’s numbness or anhedonia (that’s just a fancy scientific word for the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities). Do they not deserve the chance to feel the pleasures of life once again, rather than being further numbed with pharmaceutical drugs?
“The largest part of what we call 'personality' is determined by how we've opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness" - Alain de Botton
The research suggests that psilocybin gives people the ability to ‘reset’, even after years of negative thought patterns. The time is ripe to take psychedelics seriously for their therapeutic properties. With more research on the horizon from Carhart-Harris and others, the conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of the use of psilocybin as treatment for depression will likely become difficult to ignore and indeed, if it reduces human suffering, should be embraced.
For people still enduring this debilitating condition, and for whom the pharmaceutical drugs do nothing but create side effects and numbness, this therapy could offer a much-needed alternative.
At the very least, psilocybin is likely to offer temporary relief from consistent negative thought patterns.And, perhaps, that is just the glimmer of hope that those suffering from depression need.
Carhart-Harris, R., Bolstridge, M., Day, C., Rucker, J., Watts, R., Erritzoe, D., . . . Nutt, D. (2018). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: Six-month follow-up. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), 399-408. See PDF.
Carhart-Harris, R., Roseman, L., Bolstridge, M., Demetriou, L., Pannekoek, J., Wall, M., . . . Nutt, D. (2017). Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 13187-13187. See PDF.
Griffiths, R., Johnson, M., Richards, W., Richards, B., Jesse, R., MacLean, K., . . . Klinedinst, M. (2018). Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32(1), 49-69. See PDF.
Kyzar, E., Nichols, C., Gainetdinov, R., Nichols, D., & Kalueff, A. (2017). Psychedelic drugs in biomedicine. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 38(11), 992-1005. Link.
Lawton, G.(17 August 2017). Trip Advisor. NewScientist.
Rucker, J., Iliff, J., & Nutt, D. (2018). Psychiatry & the psychedelic drugs. past, present & future. Neuropharmacology, 142, 200-218. See PDF.