Former Naval Chief Petty Officer Bruce Golden was stuck. He’d just left a shopping bazaar where he and his partner sold baby goods as a side gig and was driving himself to the hospital. He never made it there. His breathing became laboured; he was sweating profusely. He was shaking uncontrollably. What he feared most was finally happening, and he couldn’t understand exactly why.
Golden was in the midst of a full-on panic attack. The source of his anxiety, he says, was fretting over something that never did happen.
“I was always worried about some big, cataclysmic event in my life that was going to happen.”
Rising rates of depression and anxiety
After years of battling with anxiety and depression, for which he sought treatment later, Golden said what made it so worse was that he seemed to have everything going well for him: a two-decade career with the United States Navy, handling sensitive and life-threatening information; a newly-wed, and a son in tow. So how could he be depressed and anxious?
If the answers eluded him, his present plight was real and unmistakable and is now becoming dangerously threatening to his everyday life and role in the US military.
“I really couldn’t understand why I was feeling so out of sorts and depressed,” said Golden, reflecting now on the attack back in 2019. “This was new to me, and it seemed to have come out of nowhere.”
Golden, like so many throughout the world, are finding themselves more anxious and living with depression—now more than ever. After all, we live in a more depressive and traumatic world, say psychologists who have noticed their caseloads swell and psychiatric prescriptions balloon.
Fully twenty per cent of people in the US alone are now dealing with a mental health illness, and one in four for the UK.
A seemingly intractable COVID pandemic—which is not abating in some places—worldwide climatological change uprooting and disrupting millions of lives; a racial reckoning still unresolved in the West; the latest threats of how social media is fueling mental health crises in teen girls (boys, too); and growing unrest in unstable regions throughout the developing world are all compounding, say therapists, and contributing to our collective emotional and mental malaise.
Could magic mushrooms hold the cure?
And while psychiatric prescription medications remain heavily prescribed in the West, some are seeking other alternative approaches in quelling disquieting minds and emotions, like yoga and meditation—even psychedelic-assisted therapy, with hallucinogenic drugs like psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in magic mushrooms, ketamine infusions, and ayahuasca treatments and eskatamine, under the guidance of those skilled in assisting people to better deal with traumatic emotions and feelings.
Preliminary studies and trials conducted at Johns Hopkins University on treatment-resistant depressive patients have discovered that tripping on mushrooms in the right settings offers watershed emotional therapeutic upheavals for those wanting to escape the rattle of an ever-present chattering monkey mind. For some, the experience can be downright spiritual and life-changing, their studies concluded.
The Food and Drug Administration, the regulatory body in the US that greenlights drugs to the market, has already “designated” some of these psychedelic therapies, like mushrooms with psilocybin in it, a “breakthrough” status, essentially giving it the thumbs up. Other hallucinogenic agents are following and will soon be added as mental health treatments.
And while traditional means and methods of treating anxiety and depression have made little dent in the overall wellbeing of those seeking care (a growing body of scientific evidence is showing that pharmacological means is only nominally aiding those caught in depressive cycles); they remain the starting point, still, for clinicians treating mental illness.
So can a mushroom with psilocybin, the chemical compound found in it—or other psychedelics like an ayahuasca trip, the South American psychoactive brew used both socially and ceremonially, and even ketamine infusions, be the panacea to what ails us psychologically?
Professor and clinical psychologist, Geoff Bathje, thinks so—and believes its healing properties have merit.
“It definitely has helped many people and, as an adjunct to traditional therapy, perhaps, can be life-saving for some people,” said Bathje. “I’ve seen the results, what it’s done.”
Bathje is not just talking academically and theoretically. “I’ve been helping people process their psychedelic experiences for about the past five years. I’ve seen the results.”
As a younger man, he had his own challenges years ago, putting him on a path of a near existential panic– when he developed social anxiety as an adolescent and was hyper-aware of others’ perception of him. His experience with psychedelics, most notably magic mushrooms, changed all that and set him up on a path to do the same with others.
“I had my first bout with social anxiety and depression in my teens,” he remembers now of the person he was. “I was hyper-focused on thinking everybody was thinking about me, and then I tried psilocybin, the mushroom, and it gave me a different vantage; it really shifted something in me.”
His grassroots and humanistic psychological training have led him to work with people with addictions, the chronically homeless, and those struggling with oppressive mental illnesses. His approach has always been holistic and integrative.
He’s so convinced that psychedelic treatments, like magic mushrooms, could be the wave of the future that he’s changed his career direction to focus on it, launching a nonprofit, the Sana Healing Collective, to assist those desiring to engage in such therapy.
“We’ll use ketamine as an adjunct to other traditional therapy methods,” said Bathje. His process would include several preparation sessions with his team and patients to gauge where they are in their lives and what they want to get out of treatment. With trauma-centred patients, extra care would be granted and lower doses of ketamine.
“We want people to stay regulated and not be overwhelmed by the treatment. The dose, the setting, the preparation, and the human relationship are what allow people to dive deep and have a therapeutic relationship.”
Changing how we see antidepressants
Bathje and others like him are beginning to appreciate a novel idea broached journalist Johan Hari’s seminal book on depression that antidepressants don’t always have to come in the form of a pill.
“…It’s anything that lifts your despair. The evidence that chemical antidepressants don’t work for most people shouldn’t make us give up on the idea of an antidepressant,” chronicled Hari in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. “But it should make us look for better antidepressants—and they may not look anything like we’ve been trained to think of them by Big Pharma.”
The practise of using small doses of mushrooms and other psychedelics, or microdosing (larger doses is known as macro dosing) to alter one’s mood and feelings and behaviours is not new, of course; the countercultural movement in the West, in the 1960s, ushered in all that experimentation and laid the groundwork for other movements that would later come, like modern feminism and the antiwar movement—“tuning in and dropping out” was the clarion call of the times in the US, buttressed largely by hallucinogenic trips.
But the drugs dropped from favour in the 1970s, when the Controlled Substances Act banned its use; they’re still illegal in most places. But they’ve existed underground all the while, creating a parallel world of tripping rituals and spiritual ceremonies.
Although states like Oregon are playing with its medicinal and mental health effects, prompting other states to follow suit, they’ve still got a long way to go in reaching would-be clients. But its popularity is growing.
So, what exactly are mushrooms benefits and other psychedelics, and what can one expect?
A good trip on hallucinogens reports those who’ve taken it over time, including compassionate care patients, like those in the end stages of cancer, a shift in perspective and mood; heightened awareness, improved thought processes; and a significant improvement of overall wellbeing.
Other states that those reported having taken psychedelics, including magic mushrooms, have witnessed:
• Enhanced performance
• Improved mood
• A boost in creativity
• Increased energy
• Heightened focus
Some of the adverse side effects, or a “bad trip,” might include frightening hallucinations, paranoia, fear, and unpleasant emotions. Experts say, however, that its therapeutic value outweighs the potential side effects and admit that it’s not for everyone.
Medical professionals and scientists, including the Drug Policy Alliance, alike have touted its limited toxicity and low habit-forming risk and say that there’s no major risk attached, perhaps welcome news for patients now experiencing a bevvy of side effects from traditional psychiatric medications.
Golden, the former Naval chief, was willing to try just about anything to seek some solace from his ever-present state of anxiety. And though he’s not yet given psychedelics ago, he says he’s not opposed: “I’m willing to try anything because what I’m doing now, taking medications, is not working for me. So I’ve tried everything: deep breathing, meds, exercise, even meditation, and I’m still having these anxious feelings.”
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