YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD about all the ways that mushrooms (or, more specifically, their active hallucinogenic compound, psilocybin) are mental-health cure-alls. Depression, PTSD, addiction: You name it and some wellness guru has likely told you that the right kind of mushroom can fix it. Even Oregonians voted last year to allow the therapeutic use of psilocybin in clinical, controlled settings.
It sounds exciting, but I’ve been skeptical, since I’ve seen a lot of promising yet fleeting therapies, especially for issues where conventional drugs don’t work that well. But then I thought, Maybe this is the moment we need. With the mental-health fallout from the pandemic and concerns that suicide rates will rise, could a mystical, psychedelic experience truly bring people some much-needed relief?
I called up someone who knows more about it than almost anyone else: Matthew Johnson, Ph.D., at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, where psilocybin is administered legally in research studies. Then I talked to Rick Doblin, Ph.D., founder of the leading organization for psychedelic studies in Oregon. It solidified a few things for me and opened my mind (with a chat, not shrooms) about others.
Psilocybin can bring on breakthroughs in therapy. But so can talking.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are constantly chasing “aha” moments in therapy, when a patient says, “I finally understand why I feel the way I do.” Sometimes this process takes weeks, and sometimes it takes years. Johnson believes that psilocybin can actually jump-start these types of breakthroughs and create “big-picture changes” quickly. Science hasn’t yet pinned down exactly how the drug works—some studies suggest it can increase the number of connections between brain cells in the areas that are responsible for processing thoughts, feelings, and emotions. That might help explain why people report huge leaps in insight or dramatic and seemingly permanent changes in how they view things after a single experience with the drug.
I think about it as pressing the mind’s reset button. In Johnson’s lab, one of the most striking benefits of the drug has been its role in easing anxiety and depression in people with cancer. Next up, he’s targeting addiction and PTSD. It’s thrilling to think a drug can help with these afflictions, but it’s also important to remember that breakthroughs are achievable via therapy, without the possibility of a bad trip.
If you “do mushrooms” the helpful, therapeutic way, it’s not exactly a party.
“Sometimes people come out of the session saying, ‘Why in the hell do people do these for fun?’ because they come out emotionally and physically exhausted,” Johnson tells me. And those are instances when the active ingredient is measured and controlled. In recreational use, it’s harder to judge how much psilocybin you’re getting, and it’s easier to end up in the kind of bad trip/downward mental spiral your high school health-ed teacher warned you about.
To get a useful effect from mushrooms, therapy is still essential.
For psilocybin to help, “it’s not just about taking the drug,” says Doblin. “It’s not even just about the experience. It’s about what you do with it and how you integrate it [into your life].” A task force in Oregon, with input from Doblin, his colleagues, and many others, is aiming to nail down what the clinical model should look like, and a key will be having a mental-health professional or trained guide there with you who has gotten to know you first. This guide, and the therapy you get stemming from the drug experience, is critical. In fact, it keeps Doblin up at night to think about what would happen if psilocybin were an approved drug and people simply started prescribing it without the proper protocols. It won’t necessarily help to just have the drug out there, he says.
Psilocybin isn't going to be at the office anytime soon.
Right now you can only get this therapy if you’re in a study at a lab like Johnson’s—in the coming years, Oregon should have licensed facilities.
In the meantime, the DIY approach to using mushrooms to change your state of mind isn’t the way to go. Though Johnson doesn’t have issues with recreational use per se (the fact that possession is illegal in most states notwithstanding), he says that you have to be honest and not pretend you’re doing it for your mental health. And not to bring you down, but if you’re hoping that microdosing—taking tiny amounts of this drug—can boost your mood and creativity, Johnson says, “So far, it looks like a good amount of it may be the placebo effect.”
Outside of a lab, there are always reports of people who don’t recover from a bad trip, or even harm themselves during one. “There will be casualties for sure,” says Doblin. To help prevent that, his team is starting to train first responders on how to de-escalate people in bad-trip situations.
My mind is still open—it’s possible that with enough good research, psilocybin could become part of the future of mental wellness. But don’t wait until then to get help for the issues that are bothering you.
This story originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Men's Health.
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