This illustration serves as a visual representation of my emotional state spanning several years—a nightly anticipation filled with dread, a fear of mornings, and an existence shrouded in the fog of the mind. Unable to genuinely experience a spectrum of emotions, including anger, sadness, sorrow, happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction, the root cause was not the depression itself but the prescribed medications. The trajectory of my journey shifted significantly upon encountering Professor Carhart-Harris and his pioneering team, leading me to participate in their groundbreaking research on magic mushrooms.
For those grappling with depression, the shared experience is not uncommon. A global community of approximately 280 million individuals, as per WHO 2021, emphasizes the widespread impact of this mental health challenge. The economic burden in the UK alone, reaching 7.5 billion pounds annually (2022 government), underscores the urgency in addressing mental health care challenges as both a formidable challenge and a top priority for the health system.
Amidst the seemingly pessimistic landscape, there exists a ray of hope through effective treatments for depression. Research by Cipriano et al (2018), investigating the efficacy of 21 antidepressant drugs on over 110,000 individuals, revealed promising results. Approximately 50% of participants reported reduced depressive symptoms and improved mood after eight weeks of treatment, particularly when coupled with therapy. However, the efficacy of these antidepressants varies, with many individuals discontinuing the medication, experiencing relapses, or showing complete resistance to treatment.
Ironically, I find myself among those individuals who, despite the potential effectiveness for some, faced unsatisfactory treatment results, highlighting the challenges in meeting the overwhelming demand for mental health care. This raises questions about the efficacy of conventional strategies when confronted with the complexities of depression.
In the face of such challenges, I set aside my preconceptions and turned to unconventional treatments, particularly psychedelic drugs. Under the guidance of Professor Carhart-Harris and his team from the Imperial College of London, I became part of a pioneering group actively participating in the renaissance of psychedelics in research. The recent authorisation of psychedelics for research after years of political pressure marked a significant milestone.
The focus of the team's research lies in exploring the mental health benefits of psychedelics, especially magic mushrooms. They posit that psychedelics, with its Latin root meaning "reveal the soul," provide a gateway to accessing the unconscious mind. Professor Carhart-Harris vividly described the experience with psilocybin, the primary active ingredient in magic mushrooms, likening it to a waking dream where one remains conscious and remembers every detail (TED).
My involvement in the research included the administration of 25 milligrams of psilocybin, along with 29 other participants who had exhausted conventional treatments. Rigorous screening ensured a diagnosis of major depression, and confirmation that antidepressants had failed twice to alleviate symptoms. The session itself involved being in a comfortable room, lying on a bed, wearing eyeshades, and listening to music, all while under the vigilant supervision of two psychiatrists. Regular check-ins and discussions about the experience followed over the subsequent six months to assess my mental health and depression.
Remarkably, the reported overall severity of depression among participants significantly decreased in the initial weeks, suggesting the potential success of psilocybin in reducing depression. This not only instills hope for individuals failed by traditional antidepressants but also for those seeking alternative treatments.
A recent study comparing psilocybin to classic antidepressants demonstrated a unique effect on the brain. At a dosage of 25 mg, parts of the brain that typically don't communicate with each other began to synchronize, akin to the brain's activity during dreaming. This heightened brain flexibility opens avenues for diverse interpretations of one's mental state and environment, with potential therapeutic implications (Daws et al. 2022).
Contrasting with traditional drugs that aim to diminish anxiety, increase resistance to the environment, and induce emotional numbing, magic mushrooms increase sensitivity to the environment, encouraging a range of emotions, both positive and negative (Carhart-Harris and Goodwin, 2017). The disparity in effects is evident; antidepressants often leave individuals feeling numb to both their surroundings and feelings, whereas psilocybin enhances emotions, fosters fluid thoughts, and encourages a complete engagement with one's feelings.
However, the study I participated in indicated a diminishing effect after three months, leading participants to seek additional medication or support. Ten participants opted for antidepressants, psychological support, or even returned to magic mushrooms after this period. This suggests that a single dose of psilocybin may not suffice, raising questions about the necessity for regular administration and the potential risks of addiction (Carhart-Harris et al. 2018). Future research must delve into whether this treatment is better suited for long-term use or as a single-dose intervention.
The groundbreaking discovery by Carhart-Harris on the potential of psychedelics to alleviate depression holds immense promise. However, its practical application hinges on transitioning from controlled laboratory settings to widespread accessibility. Envisioning a future where psychedelics are as accessible as traditional medications at local pharmacies underscores the transformative impact on mental health care.
Yet, the feasibility and safety of such widespread distribution pose challenges. Legalization, as witnessed in Oregon, introduces the possibility of self-administration, potentially sidelining expert guidance and risking adverse experiences that could overshadow the benefits of psychedelic therapy.
While psychedelics present an intriguing alternative to traditional treatments, the existing uncertainties and potential risks underscore the need for cautious optimism. Ongoing global trials exploring psychedelics' potential in treating various mental health conditions indicate a paradigm shift in therapeutic approaches.
Carhart-Harris and his team recognise the growing interest in psychedelics and actively engage with individuals through guides and surveys. This acknowledges the need to collect comprehensive data on diverse experiences, contributing to the evolving landscape of mental health research. Each individual's experience adds valuable insights, offering hope and potential solutions for those burdened by mental health disorders.
The evolving landscape of psychedelic research challenges preconceptions and demands a reevaluation of our perceptions. Assumptions, once considered protective barriers, reveal themselves as self-imposed prisons, hindering progress and exploration of alternative therapies. The ongoing exploration of psychedelics as potential treatments for mental health issues represents a significant step forward in the quest for effective and personalized solutions. In other words, do not be shy to try!