The salty tears stung my face as my mind kept going back to the story. Running, twisting into my pillow, I couldn’t escape from my reality. The screen saver lit up my room; “You’re not alone,” it read. I took in a deep breath and let it go. The words felt so comforting, as I fell asleep reading them over and over again.
Whether its anxiety, fear, past trauma, abuse, chronic pain, illness, poverty, unemployment, life change, genetic predisposition, or physical brain chemical imbalance; depression doesn’t appear to have only one clear cut cause or solution (Jowit, 2018; WHO, 2017, pp.6-7). Not only is depression on the rise globally, in fact, it’s the number one cause of ill health and disability worldwide and it’s estimated that over 300 million people in the world suffer from it (WHO, 2017, pp.5-6). There are 800,000 suicides every year and depression is the number one contributor. Every 40 minutes someone takes their life and while there are many treatments for depression, we need to look at more options because what we are using now is not working (WHO, 2014, pp.2-3). We need to examine the possibility of using psilocybin mushrooms for the treatment of depression.
Treatment generally overemphasizes prescribing antidepressants. Unfortunately this may only add to the problem, an even more depressing list of side effects, such as: weight gain, nausea, fatigue, drowsiness, loss of sexual desire, erectile dysfunction, decreased orgasm, insomnia, migraines, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and ironically, suicide (Iliades, 2015; Jowit, 2018).
There are many talk therapies which are regarded as crucial for treating depression, but managed health care continues to limit visits and reimbursement. Talk therapy has become increasingly less popular because it doesn’t offer the immediate gratification that patients want (Jowit, 2018; Szalavitz, 2012).
In a recent study, exercise was shown to be just as effective in reducing depression, as antidepressants (Greger, 2017). Although, patients experiencing pain, may find it hard to exercise. A study of depressed adult outpatients was done to measure realistic exercise adherence. Participants were unsupervised, given an orientation and access to feasible fitness center resources. They were also provided with physical activity counseling. After 12 weeks, the average attendance was only 12 days, a mere 14% (Patten, et.al., 2019).
There are many studies showing that the ancient practice of yoga would be a great alternative for the treatment of depression and anxiety, but in a national survey only 7.5% of U.S. adults had even tried yoga at least once, and a mere 4% practiced yoga in the previous year (Harvard, 2018). So, while yoga may be a great alternative for a few, it won’t help the majority, at least not for now.
“The suicide rate is at an all time high!” Dr. Sergio raised his voice dramatically, “Modern psychology has failed!” I attended his presentation, “Science and Spirituality Working Together.” The Brazilian physician, neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist concluded that we need to integrate a “spiritual approach” to mental illness (Felipe de Oliveira, 2018). The spiritual approach may be new to science, but it has a much longer history.
“We are never alone,” all we need to do is “ask,” it says in the Bible (Matthew 7:7, Joshua 1:9, King James Version). After my prayer for help, I felt pulled to the ocean, so I moved to the Westside of LA with my yoga teacher friends. From there, I was led to a sacred gathering, tucked within the Santa Monica Mountains, where I met a Native American Indian, a Shaman, who would walk with me through eleven psychedelic mushroom journeys.
My first mushroom trip was a classic story line. However, we are all challenged by our own unique fears. On the dusty floor of the high desert, purging exhalations relaxed my body and mind to the ground, much the same way as yoga, but it was far more dramatic. With each inhalation, the air chilled as I felt the presence of my “Spirit Guides.” The love energy soared to delirious heights. Laughing hysterically, holding my belly, and contorting, I lost all control.
When the mind leaves the fortress unguarded, that is when mother nature begins her spiritual surgery. The mermaid dived deep into my depths, searching for where the dragon was hiding. Long ago, I had buried the fear in a cave, fathomless within my abyss. I didn’t want to confront it ever again. My frolicking shifted into terror as I suddenly felt the clutches around my neck. I spiraled downwards, digging my grave, my endless pit. Finally, I got bored with my victim story and I felt my Spirit reach out from the eye of the storm with an epiphany; I had a choice between life or death, heaven or hell. Consciously, I made the choice to crawl out and live.
The Shaman’s eyes penetrated mine, and with his deep thunderous voice, he asked me, “Are you ready to surrender?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What happened to you?” He asked with a furled brow and a feeling of empathy.
I searched, not from the stronghold of my mind, but from my soft center of truth, “It was a long time ago. They surrounded me, hitting, punching me, and grabbing me by the neck and smashing my head into the wall. I screamed for the yard duty. Her eyes met mine, but she turned, and walked away. They jumped on me, kicking me hard to the ground like animals, “You ugly, stupid redhead. The redhead is dead, the redhead is dead,” they chanted.
The Shaman lowered his eyes and nodded, “You were bullied--and you believed them.”
“Yes, I did,” I said, as I immediately felt the exposed knot in my throat. My body convulsed, dry heaving the depressed lie out of my body. The clutches released my neck, and I gasped for air, life force, as if I were about to drown. With each inhalation of my truth, my energy expanded throughout my body. I rubbed my eyes, yawning, and stretching my arms outwards, as if I were awakening from a long sleep. The grey dusty desert landscape awoke from her unconsciousness, with rainbows, traveling paisley patterns, glass pyramids, “Sacred Geometry,” and a giant perspective grid. My reset button was pushed, and the feeling returned, the one that we all have when we’re very very young. I remembered my original truth, “I am Love,” I said smiling, looking up at the sun.
It was the happiest day of my life. I was transformed forever, never to feel numb again, no longer looking outside myself for the source of love.
No one really knows just how long psilocybin mushrooms have been used, they predate the written word. Deep in the Sahara Desert of Northern Algeria, there is a Tassili rock painting that is dated from 5000 B.C.E. The fact that mushrooms were preserved in honey, explain this character’s name, “The Bee Man Shaman” (Stamets, 2017).
The pharaohs of ancient Egypt believed that mushrooms were a gift from the God Osiris, and they proclaimed that only royalty was allowed to touch them. Mushrooms were the inspiration for the crowns of Egypt, archaic jewelry, and the architecture of temple walls, where the mushrooms are depicted within the hieroglyphics (Abdel-Azeem, A., et. al., 2016).
At the Temple of Eleusis in Greece, Demeter may be seen, giving her daughter Persephone, a mushroom in 460 B.C.E. The ancient myth says, that after receiving the mushroom, Persephone went off to Hades, the underworld. Later, she emerged from her deep sleep, the darkness of Winter, bringing Spring and new life to the world (Stamets, 2017). Metaphorically, she traveled to hell and back, a common theme when using mushrooms, but well worth the trip. Not all of history’s mushroom stories are so dire though, some are like Christmas.
The Shamans of Siberia and the Arctic dressed themselves like the amanita muscaria mushroom, which is red with white spots. Mushrooms were found growing under evergreen trees, such as conifers and birch, with which the fungi share a symbiotic relationship. The Shaman picked the mushrooms and hung them on the trees to dry in the sun. Then, on the Winter Solstice, he gathered the “holy mushrooms” into a bag and entered the teepee-like homes through the opening in the roof, because snow was blocking the front door. The Shaman then bestowed the mushrooms as presents, in celebration of the return of the Sun. The Arctic Shaman was most likely the inspiration for the legend of Santa Claus and the flying reindeer were more than likely, a hallucination (Main, 2013).
Temples for the mushroom gods appeared in Central America from 1,000 to 500 BCE in what is now called Guatemala and Mexico. Throughout Central America, mushroom stones, and motifs were found dating from 200 AD. From the 13th century to the 16th century, more mushroom statues and artifacts were found from the Aztecs and other Central American cultures, suggesting further expansion of mushroom rituals.
From India and Australia to Brazil and Mexico, love and reverence for mushrooms may be found throughout the ancient world on every continent except Antarctica (McLendon, 2018).
Till this day, in Central America, mushrooms are still held in high regards, despite years of European travelers, traders, missionaries, and colonizers attempting to outlaw the “unholy and dangerous” ceremonies (Austin, 2016, pp.2-3).
The Germanic people happily celebrated in the forest with their mushroom and honey beers until Bavaria’s “Beer purity act of 1516” in which the church banned specifically, mushrooms from their beer. The monotheistic church fought throughout the world and history, for their monopoly on the God experience (Stamets, 2017). It wouldn’t be until many years later, that the modern world would rediscover the magic of mushrooms.
In the September 18th, 1914 issue of Science magazine, Mr. W., a botanist, reported his experience after ingesting a psilocybin mushroom. His story inspired botanists, anthropologists and decades of further study (Austin, 2016, pg.3).
Later in 1955, Gordon Wasson published his mushroom experience in Life magazine, which introduced psilocybin mushrooms to the general public at large (Austin, 2016, p.3).
During the 50’s and 60’s, significant research was done on the “Classic Psychedelics,” which included psilocybin. In 1960, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert aka, Ram Dass started the Harvard Psilocybin Project, where they documented the effects of psilocybin on human consciousness using real-time recordings of volunteer’s experiences (Harvard, n.d.).
Leary and Alpert conducted a prison experiment in which their objective was, to reduce recidivism rates using psilocybin, in addition to psychotherapy. Only six months after treatment, the recidivism rate was 40% lower than expected. In another experiment, they gave mushrooms to graduate divinity students. Almost every student described their experience as spiritually profound and 25 years later, the majority of the students reported that the mushrooms had made a positive impact on their lives (Austin, 2016, p.5)
Timothy Leary became an outspoken advocate for further research, higher consciousness, and responsible use. Unfortunately, “acting responsibly,” wasn’t the 60’s counterculture’s strong suit. The increase in unsafe recreational use, made U.S. news media headlines, which led to it’s illegal status in 1968. Two years later, psilocybin was classified as a schedule I drug, along with other psychoactive hallucinogenic substances such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), cannabis, and mescaline. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s classification made psilocybin use illegal for recreational and medical use and it stopped funding for further research (Austin, 2016, p.5; Evans, 2013; Holson, 2018, p.1).
In 1999, Professor Franz Vollenweider began the Heffter Research Center based at the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. The Swiss psychiatrist and pharmacologist recorded amazing brain imaging studies from the effects of psilocybin mushrooms, inspiring further research throughout the world (Evans, 2013; Vollenweider, n.d.).
In 2006, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland, came out with several promising studies. The objective in this study, was to evaluate the longer-term effects from what researchers considered, a high dose of psilocybin. The 30 participants were healthy, “hallucinogen-naive” adults, meaning that they had never experimented with psychedelics before. The volunteers ingested 30 milligrams of psilocybin, while they were encouraged to close their eyes and direct their attention inward. Study Monitors recorded their behavior during the sessions and the volunteers filled out questionnaires at the end of the sessions. Community Observers, such as friends and family of the volunteer’s, also filled out questionnaires. During the study, volunteers had experienced a range of perceptual changes, subjective experiences, mystical experiences, and a variety of moods including anxiety. After 2 months, the volunteers reported that the experience had substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance. They also noted that they were able to sustain positive changes in their attitudes and behavior. The community observers recorded consistent findings (Griffiths, et.al., 2006).
Later, in 2017, Griffiths did a similar study, this time using 75 healthy volunteers, clear of psychiatric issues, bipolar disorders, or personal or family histories of psychotic disorders. Individuals with alcohol, nicotine, or drug use, were excluded from the study, as well as anyone with a past history within the last 5 years. Participants were also excluded if they had any history of spontaneous, psychedelic, or mystical-type experiences. In this study, Griffiths’ objective was to see if they could create “Quantum Changes,” which differ from mere “Behavioral Changes,” which are mearley small incremental steps by contrast. Griffiths’ aim was to reproduce profound personal transformations. Each person was given a book on meditation, a blank journal, and a one-page outline of spiritual practice suggestions. Everyone was required to read the book and integrate the practices of meditation, mantra, and journaling, into their daily lives. They were also encouraged to include activities, that they personally felt would promote spiritual growth, such as spending time in nature, conscious movement, creating artwork, or providing a service. There were 3 groups, the first one was the low dose (1mg) group with standard support for their spiritual practice. The second group was a high dose (20-30mg) group with standard support, and the third group was also a high dose (20-30mg) group, but with a high amount of spiritual support (Griffiths, et.al., 2017).
After the six month follow up, the psilocybin effects were found to be consistently dose dependent, meaning the higher the dose, the more significant the experience. Spiritual support was also seen to enhance the experience. 12%, 76%, and 96% of the groups respectively, rated the experiences as the top five most spiritual experiences of their lives. 0%, 40%, and 56% respectively, rated the experience as the single most spiritually significant experience of their entire life. The community observer ratings recorded the same patterns (Griffiths, 2017).
Cancer patients typically develop chronic, clinically significant symptoms of depression, and anxiety. They commonly experience prolonged hospitalization, decreased quality of life, and increased suicidality. Griffiths used 51 cancer patients with life-threatening diagnoses, and symptoms of depression, and anxiety for his 2016 study. The study compared a high dose (22-30 mg) with a low dose (1mg), which acted as a placebo. Instructions were given to participants and staff, to minimize expectancy levels. “The high dose group experienced large decreases in depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism. At the six month follow-up, the changes were sustained, with 80% of participants continuing to show clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety. 80% endorsed moderately or greater increased well-being, and life satisfaction. Community observer ratings reflected the same improvements (Griffiths, et.al., 2016).
Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College, London, said that he and his team administered psilocybin intravenously to volunteers, giving them an almost instantaneous effect. “We did an fMRI scan of their brains, and that’s when we saw a decrease in blood flow to certain parts of the brain… The decreases were in regions that have very dense connections… like hubs in the network, centers of high connectivity.” Dr. Carhart-Harris said, that the constraining influence was on the part of the brain responsible for ego identity, which explains the common psychedelic experience of ego disintegration. He said, that if you have a constraining influence on one part of the brain, it may cause some dis-inhibition in other areas. “In fact, that’s one of our most recent findings, there are regions that show elevated or at least more erratic activity after psilocybin.” He said, that the regions that showed an increase in signal amplitude, were the subcortical regions like the hippocampus, and limbic regions, the areas associated with memory, and emotion. Dr. Carhart-Harris said, “There are reports of vivid recollection. You sometimes see age regressions, people go back to being a child… or they go back to experiences of particular salience and personal importance… Psychedelics can allow personal insights, if one has a disorder, or symptoms of depression, or anxiety. You might experience facilitated insight into the causes of these symptoms; that’s the classic idea of psychedelics to assist psychoanalytic therapy” (Evans, 2013).
Dr. Carhart-Harris’ explanations make perfect sense when I apply them to my own psilocybin experience. First, my sense of self, my ego was confronted. My beliefs that I had held onto and identified as myself, were challenged. Only I, could let go of the lies that depressed me. Confronted with a choice between life or death, the part of the journey, that causes anxiety. I had to surrender my familiar old self, and have faith that the unknown self, would feel much better. Unfortunately, humans tend to stay with what is known and familiar, even if it causes pain, and even if it drives them to suicide.
So, when my daughter came to me, and she told me that she had packed a kitchen knife, on her hike up a mountain, where she intended to use it on herself. I knew that this was her cry for help, and that I needed to do something--fast. I invited her to Venice Beach where we would blend in. Along the shore, we discussed magic mushrooms, and she told me that she had heard of them, and that she really wanted to try them. So, just as Demeter did in 460 BCE, I presented mushrooms to my daughter. In only a few hours, she transformed into the high spirited, loving, fearless woman she came here to be and six years later, she’s still shining.
“Treatment-Resistant Depression” TRD patients are generally unresponsive to conventional treatments for depression (Berlim & Turecki, 2007). In 2018, Carhart-Harris did a study on 20, mostly severe, unipolar, treatment-resistant, major depression patients. After only two psilocybin treatments, there were rapid, large symptom improvements, which remained significant after 6 month follow-ups (Carhart-Harris, et, al., 2018).
So far, psilocybin research has been very positive, but what about the negative effects of psilocybin? Dr. Felix Hasler, as well as many other doctors, found that psilocybin was generally well tolerated by healthy subjects and there was no cause for concern. However, since short-lasting moderate elevations in blood pressure could possibly occur in healthy humans without pre-existing medical conditions, they advise people with hypertension, or cardiovascular conditions, to abstain from using psilocybin. They also recommend a controlled clinical setting, since mentally stable personalities under high doses, could experience anxiety from the loosening of the ego boundary (Hasler, F., Grimberg, U., Benz, M. A., Huber, T., Vollenweider, F. X., 2003, p.155).
In the New York Times, Dr. Johnson said that psilocybin is not a panacea for everyone, and that it is an area of risk for patients with psychotic disorders. (Holson, 2018, p.2)
Fortunately, the mounting research continues to be very promising for the majority. A population study was done by the Department of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. The study used 130,000 randomly selected U.S. adults, including 19,299 psychedelic users. They searched for associations between psychedelic use, and mental health, and they found no significant links (Johansen & Krebs, 2015).
(Nutt, D. J., King, L. A., Phillips, L. D., 2010, p.1563).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved legal drugs, with far more problems than psilocybin. If we take a look at this chart from the U.K., we can see mushrooms at the bottom of the chart at 6%. The only reason mushrooms are on the chart, is because the British Medical Association defines risk as, the probability that something unpleasant will happen; in this case, temporary drug-specific, and drug-related impairment of mental functioning. The chart shows us that the drug causing the most bodily harm, is alcohol, at an alarming 72% (Nutt, D. J., King, L. A., Phillips, L. D., 2010, p.1563). Ironically, the drug with the most bodily harm to one’s self and others, is socially acceptable, approved by the U.S. FDA, legal in almost every country in the world, and readily available.
History reveals to us, a long successful love affair with the psilocybin mushroom, dating back to the ages of cave paintings. For millennia, psilocybin mushrooms have helped people to safely heal their depressed Spirits.
Now, as we may clearly see from the current suicide rate, the alternatives available for depression aren’t working. Numerous studies on psilocybin have shown us, that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Unfortunately, it may still take the FDA years of clinical study and trial, before they may reclassify psilocybin, from a schedule I drug, to a schedule IV drug, allowing it to be prescribed like sleeping pills (Holson, 2018).
For those who suffer from depression, the wait is too long. The clock is ticking, and every 40 minutes someone else takes their life.
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