Could magic mushrooms help with depression?
Posted Tuesday 24 January 2012
Today’s news includes research from Professor David Nutt, the former government drug adviser, and his team, on using psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, for depression. He suggests that such substances should not be banned from research just because of their legal status.
Street drugs and licensed psychiatric drugs are all psychoactive substances – they affect brain chemistry, and the way we feel, perceive, and understand our surroundings, at least for a short while after we have taken them.
People tend to regard street drugs as unsafe and ill-advised and psychiatric drugs as safe to take, whereas in reality they all have both good and bad effects. And just as we need to recognise that long-term use of psychiatric drugs can cause (rather than correcting) long-term chemical imbalances in the brain, as well as significant adverse physical effects, so we should also accept that street drugs can have positive effects (the reason many people take them), and we should study these and make use of them.
But we need to be cautious. LSD was used in the 1960s and ‘70s to ‘facilitate’ psychotherapy. In the ‘90s a number of people rang our infoline to say that they had been given LSD in this way in the past, they felt that they had been damaged by it and had never recovered, and the reason they were ringing Mind was to find out who they could sue for the long-term harm they had been caused.
So my feeling is that all substances that we know to be psychoactive should be open to further investigation as to their therapeutic potential, regardless of their current legal status.
On the whole the physical side effects of street drugs tend to be better tolerated than those of a lot of psychiatric drugs. However, if people are to be treated with medicines derived from what are currently illegal substances, they first of all need to give fully informed consent - something which may well have been missing in the LSD cases - and those treating them have to be quite sure that they can deal with any harms that may arise.
Any technique that takes someone into a deeper level of consciousness, whether a drug or a talking treatment, should not be used unless the therapist or doctor can be quite sure they can get their client back from it.
Bad trips will happen; we don’t want them to join the list of dreadful memories that many people have been damaged by and are trying to come to terms with. And using psilocybin to help people with depression recall happy memories does first of all rely on the supposition that they have some to recall.
Professor Nutt is quoted as saying "This drug has such a fundamental affect on the brain we should be trying to understand why."
Yes, of course we should. The legal status of such substances is quite irrelevant – we should be finding out as much as we can about why they do what they do.
Dr Katherine Darton, Information officer
Read about the main mental health effects of the most commonly used street drugs, including psilocybin and LSD.
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