Psilocybin, the chemical in magic mushrooms, could be a powerful treatment, but sometimes things get ugly.
Image: Erik Fenderson/Wikimedia
Psychedelics are finally gaining more acceptance in the medical world, but it's important to know the risks as we look to embrace them.
In a recent survey of nearly 2000 people, a group of psilocybin (the main chemical in magic mushrooms) researchers at Johns Hopkins University looked at anecdotally reported "bad trips" to understand the enduring positive and negative consequences of a drug gone wrong. A majority of those surveyed said that the difficult shroom trip was among the ten biggest challenges they've ever faced, but also among the most "meaningful" or "worthwhile" experiences of their life.
Entheogens like psilocybin, MDMA (ecstasy), LSD, and ayahuasca have received increasingly positive attention for their psychological benefits in treating conditions like PTSD or addiction, or even for general well-being. But a lot of their reported therapeutic effects happen in a clinical setting, with supervision by trained researchers. Outside of that it can be more of a Wild West.
Among the 1,993 people who took the 45-minute long survey about their most challenging trip, 10.7 percent said they put themselves or others at risk of physical harm, 2.6 percent said they acted violently or aggressively, and 2.7 percent said they sought medical help. Five of the survey participants who said they already had pre-existing anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts attempted suicide during their worst trip—which researchers say indicates the need for a safe setting and a positive psychological "set" going into the trip.
Six people, however, said their suicidal thoughts disappeared after their worst trip, which fits well with the Johns Hopkins studies proving the antidepressive effects of psilocybin for cancer patients.
"Psilocybin can occasion experiences that are life altering. Many months after, [study participants] continue to attribute positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior to the psilocybin experience," Dr. Roland Griffiths, psychopharmacologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Motherboard.
But Griffiths and fellow researchers wanted to understand the effects of tripping outside the clinic. Psychedelics were historically associated with overuse during anti-establishment or anti-war hippie movements in the 1960s. That created a substantial misunderstanding about the risks of these compounds," Griffiths said.
After government lash back causing psychedelic research to go on hiatus for several decades, scientists developed safety methods and procedures for administering these drugs safely. "We know now the research can be done, but left unanswered for us in the last ten years is what about these terrible experiences that are reported?"
Some of the participants in the survey also experienced enduring effects several months or more after the challenging trip ended, the most common being anxiety, depression, and fear. "The bottom line is, there are risks associated with taking these compounds. It's important that people don't read positive press and think this is great everyone should try it," said Griffiths. "The key is getting these results in perspective, not over or under emphasizing the negative effects."
But psychotherapist Neal Goldsmith, author of Psychedelic Healing, cautions against using terms like "bad trip", even for these potentially depressing experiences. "I use the phrase difficult trip or experience [because] they are very much trying and difficult at times, but frequently they'll be one of the most beneficial or valuable experiences of the person's life once that difficult experience is processed," said Goldsmith. (Of course, if you have a family history of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, it may be best not to trip at all.)
Processing the trip, whether it's difficult or not, is part of what Goldsmith refers to as "integration." Psychedelic integration is not separate from the trip itself, but is should be natural part of the experience after it occurs. "Integration is about making the benefits or insights or clarities that these psychedelics might provide into a change in your life, or a growth in your life," he said.
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