Mind Trip: Psychedelics Fighting Depression, Anxiety, Addiction

(Photo by Eurokinissi/Tatiana Bollari)

You’re not being invited to tune in, turn on and drop out, or sit in a white room without curtains but the controlled use of psychedelics – a counterpart to the LSD pill drop of the 1960s that sent many people into a kind of end-of-2001-Space Odyssey trip deep into their own mind (– some never recovered or went bats) is showing impressive results at Johns Hopkins University.

Scientist Roland Griffiths and his colleague Matthew Johnson have been giving what they call “heroic doses” of psilocybin, like the old magic mushrooms from Hippie times, to more than 350 volunteers over the last two decades, CBS News reported in a feature by Anderson Cooper.

The early results are encouraging, as are the experiences of the studies’ volunteers who go on a six-hour, sometimes terrifying, but often life-changing psychedelic journey deep into their own minds, the report said.

Among the volunteers was Jon Kostakopoulos, who said he wanted to end his daily binge drinking of beer and cocktails, usually vodka sodas, tequila sodas, scotch and sodas, as many as 20 a day he said was wearing him down and out, killing him slowly.

During one psilocybin session, he was flooded with powerful feelings and images from his past.
“Stuff would come up that I haven’t thought of since they happened,” he told Cooper, who asked if old memories he couldn’t remember returned again.

“I felt, you know, a lot of shame and embarrassment throughout one of the sessions about my drinking and how bad I felt for my parents to put up with all this,” said Kostakopoulos, who took the psilocybin in 2016 and stopped drinking on the spot.

“Do you ever have a day where you wake up and you’re like, man, I wish I could have a vodka right now or beer?” asked Cooper.

“Never,” said Kostakopoulos…“Not at all, which is the craziest thing because that was my favorite thing to do.”

As the show noted, using psychedelic drugs in therapy is not new, with hundreds of scientific studies done on a similar compound – LSD – in the 1950’s and 60’s, tested on more than 40,000 people, some in controlled therapeutic settings like this one.

But there were also abuses. The U.S. military and CIA experimented with LSD sometimes without patients’ knowledge, said the report, and LSD took on a bad reputation as dangerous and even deadly in some cases.

When Harvard professor Timothy Leary urged people to turn on, tune in, and drop out during the counterculture movement that brought fear to the establishment, then-President Richard Nixon in 1970 signed the controlled substances act and nearly all scientific research in the United States into the effects of psychedelics on people stopped.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Roland Griffiths won FDA approval to study psilocybin. “This whole area of research has been in the deep freeze for 25 or 30 years. And so as a scientist, sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle,” he said.

After the first results he said, “The red light started flashing. This is extraordinarily interesting. It’s unprecedented and the capacity of the human organism to change – it just was astounding.”

But he cautioned what he does is scientific in a very controlled setting and that, “we are very aware of the risks, and would not recommend that people simply go out and do this.”

Griffiths and Johnson screen out people with psychotic disorders or with close relatives who have had schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and volunteers are given weeks of intensive counseling before and after the six-hour psilocybin experience; the psilocybin is given in a carefully controlled setting one to three times. They said there hasn’t been one adverse reaction but warn some people will find the experience terrifying and be taken into a “hell realm” of fear.

Everything is done the same way it was for the LSD experiments scientists conducted in the 1950s and 60s and some of the most dramatic results have been with terminal cancer patients struggling with anxiety and paralyzing depression.

Kerry Pappas, who was diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer in 2013 took the chance on the psilocybin. “I start seeing the colors and the geometric designs and it’s like ‘oh this is so cool, and how lovely’ and, and then, boom. Visions began,” she said. During her psilocybin session, she found herself trapped in a nightmare her mind created. “An ancient, prehistoric, barren land. And there’s these me with pickaxes, just slamming on the rocks. So…” she said.

Cooper asked, “and this felt absolutely real to you?”

“Absolutely real. I was being shown the truth of reality. Life is meaningless, we have no purpose. And then I look, and I’m still like a witness, a beautiful, shimmering, bright jewel. And then it was sound, and it was booming, booming, booming. Right here right now.”

“That was being said?” asked Cooper.

“You are alive. Right here right now, because that’s all you have.” And that is my mantra to this day,” she said. The cancer has spread to her brain but she said her crippling anxiety about death is gone.

“Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, I feel like death doesn’t frighten me. Living doesn’t frighten me. I don’t frighten me. This frightens me.” She added, “to this day, it evolves in me…It’s still absolutely alive in me.”

When Cooper asked if the drug had made her happier, she said, “Yah. And – and I don’t necessarily use the word happy. Comfortable. Like, comfortable. I mean, I’ve suffered from anxiety my whole life. I’m comfortable. That, to me, okay. I can die. I’m comfortable,” she laughed.

She ended: “I mean, it’s huge. It’s huge.” She’s freed.

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