The sunlight glittered on the sea and the coconut palms waved beguilingly as the facilitator gave each of us a handful of brown capsules. They looked like vitamin pills and tasted earthy. I had come on the retreat – advertised as ‘25 years of therapy in a week’ – to support a friend who hoped taking psilocybin (magic mushrooms) might alleviate the trauma of her husband’s death. She had read Michael Pollan’s bestselling book How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics and wanted to try psilocybin to see if it could relieve her depression and PTSD.
I was reminded of our Jamaican ‘trip’ last week when I read reports of the latest study conducted by Kings College London into psilocybin, which builds on the last two decades of research that shows some psychedelic compounds, particularly psilocybin, can be as effective (or even better) than traditional treatments for intractable depression, addiction, end of life psychological distress and PTSD. Last week The Journal of Psychopharmacology described the Kings College trial as ‘an essential first step in demonstrating the safety and feasibility’ in the therapeutic uses of psilocybin. The study found no adverse events or detrimental effects from administering the drug to groups of people.
An earlier Kings study, of 60 people (featured in a BBC documentary) found psilocybin was as efficacious as an SSRI anti-depressant at treating depression. And last week an international coalition headed by Professor David Nutt, head of Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research and the Bexley Foundation, launched a campaign to reschedule psilocybin under the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic substances to make it easier for scientific researchers to “advance the critical work being done to ensure the availability of psychedelic therapies for those suffering from mental illness and addiction.”
So can magic mushrooms really help those with depression? In a 2006 John Hopkins university experiment in which terminal cancer patients were given psilocybin for existential trauma, two-thirds of participants rated the psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Fourteen months later, participants reported significant improvements in their ‘personal wellbeing, life satisfaction, and positive behaviour change’.
Personally, I was sceptical – but the retreat changed my mind. The most striking change I witnessed was in the case of John, 30. On the first night he could barely speak. His face was white, his eyes so absent it was hard to look at him. He said if the mushrooms failed he would kill himself. The group leader assured us this was common. The next day we started dosing. There was only one rule: don’t leave. We were assured that if we stayed with the facilitators we would be safe. Taking psychedelics is not like taking paracetamol; it is all about the set (mindset and intention going in) and setting (where you are, who is looking after you).
I asked the leader tremulously about the possibility of a bad trip. He smiled. “Whatever happens, trust the medicine and don’t resist. Follow where it takes you, even if it is frightening. Submit, surrender to it and all will be well.” These words were followed by a meditation in which we were told to imagine ourselves full of white light. “If in the trip you feel uncomfortable, come back to this place of light and calm,” he said.
I held my friend’s hand tight. I needn’t have worried. Half an hour later the leaves above me in my hammock began to swirl and glitter. The red petals of bougainvillea all over the sand glowed and moved. My body felt heavy and a bit nauseous but as the hours passed, a huge feeling of joy filled me. As I looked at the sun on the sea, the golden light without became a golden light within, all worries fell away. I felt reborn, recharged by the universe. Connected to all things. I am not religious but it felt as if I had touched the divine.
I am not alone in this feeling. Psychonauts from Aldous Huxley to Timothy Leary have described this little brown mushroom as an ‘entheogen’ or gateway to the divine. The ancient Aztecs and indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America called them teoanacatl or ‘flesh of the gods’; using the fungi as a religious sacrament for hundreds of years. Over the following days, the changes in my fellow retreatants made that far-fetched claim credible. By the third dose, John was a different man, smiling, colour in his face, meeting our eyes, laughing, engaged with the world. Two years later he is still well. My friend too, after a first difficult and painful trip (which she described as worse than chemotherapy), finally regained a sense of joy. The ancient medicine had worked.
Modern medicine is finally catching up with ancient wisdom. Brain scans of people who have taken psilocybin show that by turning off the Default Mode Network (the CEO part of the brain which usually controls all inputs) new connections can be formed. One neuroscientist described a depressive’s brain as being like a skier who keeps descending a mountain in the same tracks, unable to escape the deep grooves and repetitive patterns. Psilocybin acts like a covering of fresh snow – the mind has a chance to create new tracks, new paths, new patterns – break out of the depressive, or compulsive, old ruts.
So far the trials have been small but results are promising, which is important since the world is in the grip of a mental health crisis. There are risks, of course. As Pollan writes: “People on psychedelics are liable to do stupid and dangerous things… bad trips are very real.” It is incredibly important for safety that psilocybin is taken under controlled therapeutic conditions with a qualified ‘trip sitter’. Even under these circumstances ‘dosing’ can get wild; in Jamaica I saw members of the group screaming that they were dying, giving birth to dragons, and pawing the ground. One man bellowed for four hours. It was not for the faint-hearted. And the trip was only half of the treatment. It was the integration sessions on the days between the three doses that much of the work got done. Those lengthy sessions where we talked in turn about our experiences were some of the most profound, truthful, moving conversations of my life. This therapeutic discussion – in groups or one on one with a psychologist – will be a key part of developing psilocybin as a future treatment.
It may sound wacky but there is a gold rush of investment into such psychedelic treatments and huge pressure on governments to allow more experimentation. In the US, the state of Oregon has decriminalised psilocybin already and legal retreats are being offered in Holland and Jamaica. Ketamine, MDMA, and even LSD and DMT are being looked at by scientists as potential treatments, too.
There is a long way to go and there is always a risk that this second wave of psychedelic experimentation will become derailed again by public resistance and panic in the same way it did in the 1960s when hippies urged the world to Turn on, Tune in and Drop out. But having seen the life-changing benefits psilocybin therapy can bring, I hope patients in the UK will be able to access it safely and legally soon. For some people, it is literally a life-saver.
Eleanor Mills is the founder and editor in chief of www.Noon.org.uk, a platform for women in midlife