In The Psychedelic Drug Trial, patients were given a widely available substance in the hope of easing deep, treatment-resistant depression. The results were remarkable: low moods rose; suicidal thoughts stopped; grief lifted; joy appeared. Ironic, really, that it all left me feeling so sad.
The participants were part of a ground-breaking study into the effects of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic- and illegal – compound found in some mushrooms. Professor David Nutt at Imperial College has been pushing to conduct research into hallucinogens for more than a decade, and this study, conducted with Dr Robin Carhartt-Haris, was his biggest breakthrough yet.
Participants took their capsules in a darkened room, with two therapists to talk them through the experience, which, for many, involved seeing bright colours, places and things, and feeling strong, sometimes overwhelming emotions.
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Soft-spoken Ali’s only prior knowledge of magic mushrooms was that they were a “bit odd”, yet she could barely contain her delight as she described the beautiful cathedral she saw. Jane, the wife of another participant, Steve, said he very rarely smiled thanks to his depression – yet he giggled like a little boy during his psilocybin therapy.
The results, albeit in a small trial, seemed to suggest that psilocybin could potentially be more effective against depression than the standard antidepressant taken by the control group.
Yet, it’s not a cure-all – the study’s psychologist said the effects of two sessions tend to die away after six months. Even if other studies back the findings, it’s a long road to become licensed.
Watching the participants talk jubilantly about the treatment, it was hard not to feel sadness for the thousands without the option to try it – and fear, that these patients, too, would go back to feeling the way they did before.
Yet the documentary was a flicker, however faint, of hope. Nine months on, Steve still felt transformed by the experience. “I’m better. I never thought I’d say that,” he said. Still smiling.
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