BY: TED BARNABY
Seeking treatment for depression is both frustrating and discouraging: you walk into the doctor’s office, answer a few questions, followed by a prescription of any number of anti-depressants which, after six weeks of taking them, will either make you feel better, worse, or emotionally neutral. With a 2/3 chance of a negative emotional outcome, following a six-week trial period, it’s not a hopeful undertaking.
In the doctor’s office, depression is also commonly treated with SSRI pills (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor), an anti-depressant that increases serotonin levels in the brain. However these pills are often cited to be useless. Psychiatrist and coeditor-in-chief of Psychological Medicine, Kenneth Kendler, says, “We have hunted for big simple neurochemical explanations for psychiatric disorders and have not found them.”
Depression continues to be a disorder, which lacks a definitive solution. Unfortunately, the lack of foreseeable treatment only drags one further down the rabbit-hole, dropping the tunnel-vision blinders of depression. For many people, psilocybin mushrooms—a surprisingly effective form of treatment—act as the doorway out.
However, before we dive into the healing properties of psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, first it’s important to understand a few of the major sources of depression. It’s tough to pin-point the exact source of the illness, as there are many factors which come into play—including one’s genes. However, according to Harvard Medical School, the chemical imbalances in the brain that lead to depression are often the result of two factors: stress and trauma.
Chemical imbalance: a product of stress?
Naturally, a major contributor to depression is stress, as long-term stress can actually lead to long-lasting (negative) changes to the brain and body. For example, one of the major brain areas responsible for depression is the hippocampus. According to the Harvard Health Publication, stress is believed to play a major roll, as “stress can suppress the production of new neurons (nerve cells) in the hippocampus,” thought to be the emotional centre of the brain. This is confirmed in a study published by The Journal of Neuroscience, which found that women with a history of depression to have, on average, a smaller hippocampus.
How does stress affect your brain? Well, in scientific terms….
The feeling of stress begins with a signal from the hypothalamus—a part of the forebrain, which connects your hormones and nervous system through the pituitary gland. In response to emotional or physical threat, the hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormones (CRH). These hormones react with the amygdala, cerebral cortex and the brainstem—a process believed to be responsible for organizing your thoughts, behaviors, emotions and involuntary responses. CRH runs through a number of neural pathways, affecting one’s neurotransmitters.
In short: too much prolonged stress creates an excess of certain hormones (CRH) that both affect your involuntary emotions, and mess with your neurotransmitters. Essentially—and not surprisingly—an excess of stress can create the chemical imbalance that causes depression.
Loss and Trauma:
Loss and trauma are also major sources of depression—often festering in your subconscious. If one is unable to face their past—and therefore consciously recognize the source of this depression—it will be extremely difficult to heal. Furthermore, later disappointments in life are more likely to spark new depressive episodes.
So how do psilocybin mushrooms help alleviate stress and trauma?
In short, psilocybin mushrooms arouse lateral thinking. Psilocybin allows one to explore unconventional modes of thought, by temporarily re-wiring old neural pathways to activate new connections in the brain. Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology, David Nutt, claims “By disrupting that network [with psilocybin] you can liberate them from those depressive symptoms by showing them it’s possible to escape those thoughts.”
Another major issue with depression is the perpetual cycle of negative thought. The difficulty is breaking out of this narrow focus in order to confront the leading sources of stress in your life, be it present, or a traumatic experience from the past. The psychedelic experience of mushrooms forces one to address these issues in an objective and organized way. “People try and run away from things and to forget, but with psychedelic drugs they’re forced to confront and really look at themselves,” says Neuroscientist and Psychologist, Dr. Robin Carhart-Haris.
Despite the benefits of psilocybin, research on psychedelics came to a halt in the ’60s due to widespread recreational use and the government restrictions that followed. However in 2001, Roland Griffiths, Professor of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences and Neuroscience, was granted the first approval in 30 years to preform research on the impact of psychedelic drugs.
In Griffith’s first study—where 36 subjects lay on a couch and ingested psilocybin—over 70 percent of participants rated the experience to be in the top five most important moments of their lives, and almost a third deemed it to be their number one most important experience.
Griffith organized a subsequent study in 2008, to see if psilocybin could alleviate depression and anxiety for those struggling with cancer. One of the participants in the study was a retired psychologist named Clark Martin, who claims to have derived many significant insights from his trip, including a revelation that allowed him to mend and grow his relationship with both his daughter and father. An entire year after the experience, Martin wrote:
“There has been a shift from trying to micro-manage life to trusting intuition and spontaneity. … I’m more focused on values and process and less likely to feel long-range goals are set in stone. I am again involved professionally and socially. Most significantly, life has continued to open up, a move away from the depression and what felt like a downward spiral. Somehow, the psilocybin re-engaged a fullness of function that had been lost.”
Martin’s words resonate with me as I think back to my own experience with psilocybin mushrooms, yielding similar results: all of my problems were laid out in front of me like tangible objects. I was able to isolate each problem, review it objectively, and the answers came clear and sound. It’s a surprisingly coherent and tactical approach to problem solving. After my trip, I felt emotionally cleansed and content.
In addition to Griffith’s findings, in 2011, the University of Zurich published a research paper titled: Acute, sub-acute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: A pooled analysis of experimental studies. The paper reviews a number of studies completed over the last 50 years, which test the effectiveness of psilocybin for medical use. The results of these studies express a commonality of positive and long-lasting effects from taking psilocybin.
One study concludes: “At the time of the long-term follow-up 8-16 months after the last experimental session, the majority of subjects were still positively impressed by the psilocybin experience. When subjects were asked to rate the acute psilocybin effects by six descriptive items, ‘enriching’ was considered as most applicable….”
Another study cited in the paper wraps up the common emotional benefits: “Among the most often reported subjective changes in attitude and personality are more self-understanding, more tolerance of others, less egocentricity, a less materialistic and aggressive orientation, and more appreciation of music, art, and nature.”
Clearly, the transformative power of psilocybin is far reaching and broadly felt. So why are we still prescribing SSRI pills, and medication with ambiguous and lengthy outcomes? The simple answer is: they’re still a psychedelic drug, and although we live in an increasingly liberal society, we haven’t come that far, yet. As well, it’s important to note that although psilocybin mushrooms can be a great tool in treating depression, they are not a definitive cure. Depression is a complicated illness, requiring a multi-faceted approach for treatment. Proper diet and regular exercise, for example, are also extremely helpful for obvious reasons (reducing stress, increasing confidence, improved physical condition etc.).
Still, psilocybin mushrooms provide the major benefit of an experience that allows one to explore new modes of thought, thus removing the blinders of depression. Moreover, psilocybin forces one into confronting their (otherwise suppressed) past and present anxieties, in a way that is uniquely clear, organized and sortable.
For many, this is just the experience they need to launch themselves out from the bottom of the rabbit-hole. The trick, however, is keeping from falling back in.