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There has been an explosion of research on psilocybin in recent years. The articles cited below represent only a tiny fraction of the scientific literature on the subject. Science has shown psilocybin to be effective in enhancing the lives of people who are experiencing difficult-to-treat conditions and those with no severe health issues.
Existing therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), often fail to alleviate symptoms for many people suffering from depression.
First, a few words on modern antidepressants (and related classes of medications such as antipsychotics and benzodiazepines):
Modern antidepressant drugs were designed to help individuals cope and “keep going” by numbing emotions, not to treat root causes of mental and emotional health conditions. These medications can be helpful for a time, but often, after sustained use, the positive effects diminish.
Without prioritizing the development of natural, healthy coping mechanisms, individuals are often left with a dangerous dependence on chemicals to suppress overwhelming emotions.
These medications are akin to bandaids over infected wounds -- they can help people pretend the infections have disappeared and can act as a short-term solution to keep the injury clean until more effective care is available. But bandaids do not heal the wound; unprocessed emotions buried by these medications lead to various diseases of the body and mind.
Fortunately, mounting evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of psilocybin in addressing the root causes of treatment-resistant depression. Since hundreds of millions worldwide suffer from chronic depression, the helpful benefits of psilocybin have broad potential worth exploring in greater depth.
Much evidence for psilocybin’s helpful effects on depression is presented in recent research by Robin Carhart-Harris and his colleagues. In his 2016 open-label study, he found that two moderate to high doses of psilocybin, given in a supportive environment seven days apart, significantly reduced symptoms of depression. This effect was so strong that almost 60% of participants no longer met the criteria for being clinically depressed at the three-month follow-up.
His 2017 open-label trial showed similar results for up to 6 months after the psilocybin sessions. Furthermore, his 2021 double-blind, randomized controlled trial showed that two doses of psilocybin were at least as effective as six weeks’ use of a conventional antidepressant.
Psilocybin also seems to produce beneficial changes in how people think. Research led by Rosalind Watts showed that after two psilocybin experiences, people suffering from treatment-resistant depression felt more connected with other people. They were also less likely to avoid thinking about or dealing with difficult emotions or thoughts.
The current pandemic and the growing collective awareness about climate change and its impact on human civilization have allowed people to contemplate their fragility and mortality. Acknowledging life’s impermanence and peacefully facing death can be difficult for many.
Every day can be a struggle for people battling cancer and other serious illnesses. The existential distress related to these illnesses can include depression, anxiety, and deep fears about the well-being of those left behind. Unsurprisingly, end-of-life distress is nearly impossible to alleviate with current treatment options. Research suggests psilocybin may be a helpful alternative.
Roland Griffiths and Matthew Johnson found that a single psilocybin experience produced multiple benefits for people with life-threatening cancer. Participants’ depression and anxiety symptoms improved. Their quality of life was better. They were more optimistic and felt that life had more meaning. At the six-month follow-up, 80% of participants were still enjoying these shifts in perspective.
Other research teams, led by Stephen Ross and Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, have independently achieved similar results. Around 80% of participants in both studies experienced significantly improved anxiety and depression symptoms for up to six months after a single psilocybin experience.
Helping people deal with and move through the end of their lives is a crucial area in psilocybin research, with ongoing trials running in the US, UK, and Australia.
Therapsil, a Canadian nonprofit, is at the forefront of the movement to allow end-of-life patients to use psilocybin. A Seattle-based clinic, Advanced Integrative Medical Science (AIMS) Institute, is suing the DEA for the right to administer psilocybin to dying patients under right-to-try laws.
The core question remains: If people are not free to choose how they die, are they free to choose how they live?
Based on some of this research, one may assume that psilocybin can only benefit people with serious psychological illnesses or challenges. But this is not the case. Research participants with no known health conditions have consistently reported positive psychological effects due to psilocybin experiences.
Studerus, Kometer, Hasler & Vollenweider (2011) looked at eight double-blind placebo-controlled psilocybin trials conducted on healthy individuals between 1999 and 2008. Most participants described the experience as “pleasurable, enriching, and non-threatening.”
Roland Griffiths and his team observed similar results in their 2011 study. Healthy volunteers described high-dose psilocybin experiences as being highly personal and spiritually significant. They found that their mood, attitudes, and behavior all improved. Many participants reported better relationships with family and others. They took better care of themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When Griffiths followed up with these people over a year later, these improvements had persisted.
Interesting trends emerge when scientists look at the results of large-scale surveys and population data on psychedelic use. For example, Thiessen, Walsh, Bird, & Lafrance (2018) found that men who reported LSD or psilocybin use were 50% less likely to have committed violence against their partners. The researchers suggest this could be because psychedelic use can improve emotional regulation.
Krebs and Johansen (2013) examined data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Their analysis showed that people who had used psychedelics had no greater risk of mental health problems. If anything, they were less likely to have experienced severe psychological distress. The researchers also found that people who had used psilocybin were less likely to experience panic attacks or be prescribed psychiatric medication.
This research strongly suggests that the beneficial effects of psilocybin and other psychedelics are not limited to clinical settings and do not always require the supervision of a specialized psychiatrist.