Opinion: psychedelics have a role to play in treating mental illness

Psilocybin mushrooms, AKA magic mushrooms. Stock photo.

The potential role of psychedelics in addressing anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness needs to be taken seriously by the medical profession, writes Sydney disability advocate Korey Gunnis.

Millions of Australians experience some form of mental illness, with many reverting to antidepressants for relief. Australians are among the world’s biggest consumers of antidepressants, which offer hope and some relief for many with chronic depression and anxiety.

Yet, for a considerable minority of people, conventional medications offer little or no relief. And the potential cost of treatment failure is high, including but not limited to unemployment, social isolation and suicide.

Psilocybin (derived from psilocybin mushrooms – commonly known as magic mushrooms) has emerged in recent overseas medical trials as a potentially effective treatment for major depression, and anxiety, including at end of life. 

Recent research in the UK and North America has found promising reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms following treatment with psilocybin, even at six month follow-ups

Another study – using MRI technology to measure brain mechanisms following psilocybin treatment for treatment-resistant depression – found changes in functional connectivity and resting-state brain blood flow, such as decreased blood flow, which has significant correlations with decreases in depressive mood. 

Unlike antidepressants, which can come with an array of unwanted side effects, such as weight gain, fatigue and nervousness, there is evidence from some studies that psilocybin and MDMA have minimal or no serious side-effects when used clinically for treatment of depression or PTSD. 

People using psilocybin or MDMA under clinical supervision for mental health treatment have often reported significant benefits, with long term alleviation of symptoms, a greater connection to themselves or the community, and a greater sense of meaning in their lives. 

In the USA, some steps have occurred towards lifting restrictions for people using psilocybin medically for depression. Indeed, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has designated psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a Breakthrough Therapy in the treatment of depression, expediting its development towards a prescription-based medication. 

The FDA’s move regarding psilocybin as a Breakthrough Therapy permits some further research of its use for treatment of depression, facilitating an 80-person study using a single, one-time dose of psilocybin for people with depression.

In countries like the Netherlands, Austria, Jamaica and Italy – and the US jurisdictions of Denver and Oakland – the use of psilocybin has been decriminalised. 

In Australia, moves are underway by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to investigate the use of psilocybin for depression, and MDMA for the treatment of PTSD. 

Advocates like Tania de Jong AM of Mind Medicine Australia are calling for psychedelics such as psilocybin to be rescheduled, so they can be used alongside psychotherapy for the treatment of depression and PTSD. 

De Jong was greatly inspired by a 2015 article called ‘The Trip Treatment’ published in The New Yorker about television news director Patrick Mettes, who was being treated for cancer of the bile ducts, and was greatly assisted by psilocybin therapy in the end of life process.

Psilocybin is a naturally occurring serotonin receptor found commonly in magic mushrooms, and MDMA is a chemical often associated with the party drug ecstasy. Both have been much maligned in the community and are considered illegal. 

In the 1970s, psilocybin was made illegal in the US under the conservative Nixon administration, whose decision was largely a response to the counter-culture revolution of student antiwar demonstrations, drugs, sex and rock n’ roll. Many other countries followed suit.

Medical science offers new opportunities to test and gauge potential new and novel treatments for an array of conditions that are yet to have holistic, fully treatable outcomes. 

Just as medical cannabis has recently shown great promise for the treatment of chronic pain and epilepsy, psilocybin and MDMA could also do wonders for conditions of the mind. 

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