Earlier this year, Labour MP Charlotte Nichols shared a heartbreaking account of her experience living with post traumatic stress disorder.
Speaking in parliament on May 18, she told how seeing a stranger on a train platform who bore a resemblance to her attacker nearly triggered her into throwing herself in front of a train.
She also recalled how hearing the same piece of music played on the day her condition began made her vomit. And how her days living with this serious mental health condition have been a living hell.
An estimated 10% of the UK population are going through PTSD like Charlotte, and she wanted to speak out to help them.
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However, she didn’t just want to assure them they weren’t alone, she was sharing her experience in a bid to highlight something she believes is a potential cure: psilocybin, the main psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms.
It’s a bold claim – but one, according to Dr Jo Neill, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Manchester, is a valid one, as she has been working in drug discovery for psychiatry for 40 years.
As far as Professor Neill is concerned, psilocybin ‘heals people’. And she’s not the only expert alone in this belief.
‘“Heal” is not a word we generally use in psychiatry,’ Professor Neill tells Metro.co.uk. ‘We would love to heal people, but really we just help them to manage symptoms – often with drugs which come with potentially serious side effects.
‘But psychedelics are healing people, with just one or two doses of psilocybin, maybe with an occasional top-up,’ she insists. ‘It’s extraordinary, like nothing we’ve ever seen before and a complete paradigm shift in medicine that eliminates the side effect burden.’
This is why Charlotte Nichols is fighting so hard for patient access to psilocybin alongside 25 other cross-party members. She feels that the evidence supporting its medical use and safety is, in reality, strong.
‘I am hopeful that this sort of treatment may offer a light at the end of a very dark tunnel and finally give me my life back,’ she told the House of Commons.
Discussion surrounding psychedelic medicine has come into the mainstream in a big way in recent years. Celebrities such as Prince Harry and Drew Barrymore have voiced their support and personal experience with everything from mushrooms to Ayahuasca, a brew made from ingredients with hallucinogenic properties. While countries such as Australia have made the move to legalise psilocybin and MDMA for therapeutic use, due to the ever-growing body of evidence to support the remarkable benefits.
However, here in the UK, despite numerous studies proving medical effects and no serious side effects, psilocybin remains a schedule 1 drug – which means officially it has no recognised medicinal value and is deemed more harmful than heroin.
‘Psychedelic drugs don’t even fit the definition of a Schedule 1 drug,’ argues Professor Neill. ‘Not only does that keep these substances out of the hands of patients who need them, but it makes it very hard to do research, too.’
Keith Abraham, is CEO of Heroic Hearts (a charitable organisation which helps veterans access psychedelic treatments) and has also stepped in to plead for psychedelic-assisted therapy to be made available to veterans in need.
As part of the House of Commons debate in May, he sent an open letter to Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer MP, calling on him to support the rescheduling of psilocybin so that veterans can get access to psychedelic treatment. Unfortunately, like all other members of parliament who could make the changes Keith felt were so desperately needed with immediate effect, he did not.
However, although veterans are often at the forefront of this conversation, it’s actually rape that accounts for 49% of PTSD cases in the UK, followed by physical assault, sexual assault and sudden injury.
In 2013, a study from the University of South Florida revealed that psilocybin may help break the traumatic cycle of PTSD.
The research found how it stimulates the growth and repair of brain cells in the hippocampus – the centre for memory and emotion. After being given psilocybin, the mice studied were able to overcome fear conditioning at a much higher rate than those given a placebo.
Then, in the first study of its kind conducted on humans in 2018, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London also provided evidence for safety. They found that administering 10-25mg doses of pure psilocybin caused no serious adverse effects, and no negative effects on cognitive and emotional functioning
Now, there are ‘phase 3’ clinical trials underway, where psychedelics are being directly compared with the best current treatments available.
So far psilocybin has been compared head to head with Escitalopram/Esketamine (commonly prescribed antidepressants with potentially severe side effects, including fatal overdose) for depression – a condition which affects more than 280 million people worldwide. In both cases, psilocybin was as effective as the pharmaceutical drug, however, the effects were much longer lasting.
Yet despite all of this, someone in possession of magic mushrooms (which grow naturally in abundance across the UK), could wind up in prison for up to seven years.
‘The only risk that comes from these drugs is their illegal status, causing a lack of education,’ says Professor Neill. ‘I read a case report of a chap who injected himself with mushroom tea. He nearly died of a bacterial and fungal infection in his blood. Not because the mushrooms are inherently dangerous, but because they shouldn’t be injected into the bloodstream. That wouldn’t have happened if he was able to talk openly about how you should take it.’
Regardless of legal status, a huge proportion of the UK population are taking matters into their own hands, and taking psilocybin unlawfully. The 2021 Global Drug Survey revealed that 1 in 5 people in the UK illegally micro-dosed psychedelics such as magic mushrooms and LSD throughout the pandemic, to support their mental health. Over half of adults in the UK support the rescheduling of psilocybin.
Mum of one, Rebecca Allen Tap, 34, believes that psilocybin has been instrumental in helping her maintain good mental health since receiving a cancer diagnosis.
Although currently living in Bedfordshire, she’s originally from Oregon where psilocybin-assisted therapy is now legally available – albeit at a high cost.
She believes taking low doses of psychedelic mushrooms in capsule form helped her to come to terms with her rare cancer diagnosis when her son was just 14 months old.
‘I was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer [where tumours can develop in many different organs of the body] in 2019. It was entangled in my bronchial [tree, artery?] and didn’t respond to chemo or radiation, so I had to have my whole left lung removed,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
Here comes the science…
Researchers have successfully tested safety, side effects and dose, and the use of psychedelics for specific conditions (these are called phase 1 and phase 2 trials).
From these, they have seen that psilocybin is extremely well tolerated. To reach half the toxic dose you would need to consume 17kg of mushrooms – the equivalent of 85 boxes of 200g Tesco button mushrooms. Standard doses of pure psilocybin for therapeutic use start at 10mg, roughly the equivalent of 1g of dried mushrooms.
There are also no detrimental short or long-term effects on cognitive function or emotional processing that have been found.
Trials have also shown that, when administered with the right setting and psychological support such as integration therapy (which helps the patient integrate the psychedelic experiences into their life), psilocybin can provide an effective treatment for many mental health problems, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction and OCD.
According to the Home Office, in response to a combined letter headed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists this month, we’re [who? UK?] waiting on a pharmaceutical company to apply for ‘marketing authorisation’ (product license). This would be for a patented psilocybin-based medicine created for a specific condition. At this point, their product could be put forward to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) to ‘review as a medicine’.
The Home Office may then consider rescheduling.
After her diagnosis and surgery, Rebecca, who had never suffered from mental health issues previously, says she stopped seeing a future and ‘went to a really dark place’ during lockdown.
‘I was seriously vulnerable, so we lived in a bubble,’ she explains. ‘The fear and trauma of it all got to me. I felt sure the cancer would come back, that I’d never get to see my son grow up. It hurt me to be too close to him and I started to distance myself and do things to set him and his dad up for a life without me.
‘One day, I was ready to end it all. I was in the bathroom, pushing the boundaries of self-harm and I could hear my husband and son playing in the hallway. I burst into tears, realising that I couldn’t do this to them, but I was so hopeless.
‘I was nervous, so I decided to try micro-dosing using psilocybin capsules I got from a friend. I didn’t know what to expect,’ she recalls.
At the time, Rebecca was living in Oregon, USA, where psilocybin had just been made legal for therapeutic use in a supervised, clinical setting. She’d heard about the life-changing experiences others had, and how it was being used to treat depression, and wondered if it might help her too.
Rebecca then started to take 0.12g for two or three days at a time for the whole of lockdown, buying mushrooms on the illegal market for under $100. It was a bargain compared to the prices on the legal market in Oregon which ranges from $500 – $3,500 per session, depending on the dose.
‘I didn’t have any visuals or profound experiences. I could go about my day normally,’ she says. ‘What I did notice was that I started to reclaim my life. I stopped self-harming, I started setting down roots like I was going to be around much longer.’
Next, Rebecca decided to try a 0.25mg dose as a tea, which she took once a week, eventually titrating the dose to 0.5mg.
‘This time I noticed some effects,’ she remembers. ‘Colours were brighter. I could hear the birds. I laughed until it hurt. The heaviness I’d been feeling began to melt away. Instead of running from my fears, I started asking “Why am I afraid of these things? And how can I rectify them?”. I had hope.”
Even with low doses, Rebecca says she saw huge benefits and feels she has become a better mother because of it.
Although she’s since been given the all clear, Rebecca’s keen to continue taking psilocybin, even in a larger dose, as she believes that could help her overcome more of the trauma from her cancer diagnosis. However, she admits that she’s scared about dark thoughts coming to the surface in a ‘proper’ trip.
‘Ideally I’d love to take a higher dose in a safe, clinical setting,’ she adds. ‘I’d feel much safer in that situation.’
However, in the UK, that’s not an option. Yet.
With the wellness industry now worth around £2.8 trillion worldwide, according to the Global Wellness Institute, something particularly unusual about plant (or fungi) medicines like psilocybin though, is the spiritual aspect.
For just as long as these mushrooms have been used therapeutically, they’ve been used in rituals and ceremonies, and Professor Neill believes we may be entering an unprecedented time in history, where spiritual and clinical worlds must collide.
‘There are many clinicians who are very keen to combine the two approaches,’ she explains. ‘The psychedelic Renaissance has brought this idea to the fore because the impact of psychiatric therapy in conjunction with the psychedelic is so important.
‘We’re in a cost of living crisis. The NHS has been decimated. People have a much better understanding now that we desperately need to come through a pandemic and global mental health crisis in a different, holistic way.’
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