“My anxiety developed when I was diagnosed with epilepsy eleven years ago,” explained Nick*, as he led me on a Sunday morning nature trail to a mushroom picking hotspot in Yorkshire.
“But I never really recognised my problem until I got knocked off my bike two years ago. I had 15 staples in my head and was hospitalised for three days. That brought it to the forefront. I realised I had quite a bad anxiety problem.”
Nick, 29, forms part of a growing subculture of people who are self-medicating their mental health issues with psilocybin – the naturally occurring psychedelic compound within magic mushrooms – while risking up to seven years in prison. With his tightly knotted hiking boots, army-green waterproof jacket and large rucksack, he looks like any other early morning rambler.
“I first tried magic mushrooms with a couple of friends eight years ago. Years later I read Professor Nutt’s book Drugs Without the Hot Air and was interested to learn about the links between psilocybin, anxiety and depression. After reading that book I decided to start foraging for mushrooms myself.
“From my own experience, it does have a positive effect on anxiety. As soon as I ‘come down’ off the mushrooms, any thoughts of anxiety that are going through my mind immediately evaporate. It just goes in an instant… melts away. The feeling of wellbeing lasts a month or two until something, usually an epileptic fit, will trigger off the negative thoughts again.
“After doing some research online, so I knew what I was looking for, I managed to find a couple of local fields that I forage on when the season comes.
“During the off-season I have had to find other avenues to get hold of mushrooms, including ordering them online or buying ones grown indoors. But for me nothing beats the romance of picking my own medication. Psychedelics are something that I’ve grown to respect, so I mainly leave it to the season as I don’t want to overdo it and it lose the effect.
“I think they have a great potential for naturally treating mental health issues without using synthetic drugs, which invariably come with a string of nasty side effects.”
Mushrooms And The Media
“What we’re looking at is a largely unexplored technology for brain science — it was discovered in the 1940s, set the psychiatry world ablaze in the 1950s, and was aborted by widespread recreational abuse, the reaction of the media and its confluence with the Vietnam war,” argues David Nichols, a Purdue University pharmacologist, in an article for the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
James Rucker, a leading psychiatrist at King’s College London, recently spoke out against the law surrounding psychedelic drugs, which he believes is hampering research into their prospective medicinal benefits. On psilocybin and LSD, he said he believes the Government should ‘downgrade their unnecessarily restrictive class-A’, citing that they were ‘extensively used and researched in clinical psychiatry’ before their prohibition in 1967′.
‘A Profound Spiritual Event’
One of the first studies in 40 years into the therapeutic effects of psilocybin was conducted by Roland Griffiths, of Johns Hopkins University in the US, and more than half of participants said the experience was among ‘the most significant of their lives’. The 2008 study, which was published in Journal of Psychopharmacology, took a sample of 36 participants who had never used the drug before. Six were given a placebo drug and the rest 30 milligrams of pure psilocybin.
The volunteers in the psilocybin condition widely reported positive experiences — repeatedly described as a ‘sense of unity’. The experience was generally described as a profound spiritual event. Fourteen months after the clinical trial, over half of the participants in the psilocybin condition reported substantial increases in life satisfaction and positive behaviour. No negative experiences were noted whatsoever.
Concern Over Triggering Pre-Existing Psychosis
Despite these findings shedding some much needed light on the topic, it’s useful to note that generalising these findings across society would be difficult due to the small sample and the fact that prospective volunteers with personal or family histories of psychotic disorders were disqualified from taking part. In an accompanying article, Griffiths acknowledges that while being physiologically non-toxic and non-addictive, users of psilocybin may experience short-term stress and panic or trigger pre-existing psychosis.
How The Drug Has Helped Terminal Cancer Patients
A 2011 study, published in Archives of General Psychiatry, found that low doses of psilocybin improved the mood and reduced the anxiety of 12 late-stage terminal cancer patients. These finding were backed up two years later in a study, published in Experimental Brain Research, which demonstrated that dosing mice with a purified form of psilocybin reduced their outward signs of fear.
Scientists Are Having To Fight For Their Right To Research
In 2012, researchers battled through reams of red tape as the result of the negative connotations surrounding the drug, and were eventually able to test the psychoactive effects of magic mushrooms.
The team’s study, published in British Journal of Psychiatry, found volunteers given psilocybin experienced cues to vividly remember really positive events in their lives – such as their wedding day or the birth of their child.
It does seem there is little evidence that psilocybin is unsafe in a controlled setting, and even less evidence that it has addictive potential – or is even habitual at all – but plenty of evidence that suggests its prospective therapeutic benefits.
Taking that into account, isn’t it time that we let go of old prejudices and loosen the laws surrounding psilocybin in medical research? I say yes. Mental health is one of the most important issues of our times; we should be pouring funding into studies on how to treat it, instead of hampering the scientists.
The human race have reaped the rewards of the these psychoactive mushrooms for millennia, since they grew in the Elysian fields of Greece, yet we still know very little about how they work, or how they can benefit us. It seems that until we wise up, people like Nick, an otherwise totally law abiding citizen, will continue to break the law.
*Nick’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.
Photography courtesy of Liberty Cap Cottage.