Local medical research group beginning work in how psychedelic drug impacts depression

Depression is considered one of the most mentally and emotionally painful experiences anyone can go through. Millions of people suffer from it.

A new breakthrough study could change the way depression is treated in the medical field. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a study at Madison’s Usona Institute to test the effect that psilocybin has on treating depression. Psilocybin is the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms.

When asked how this mind-altering substance can help people heal from depression, Director of Clinical Research Charles Raison said, “It’s one of the most fascinating questions in the human world right now. I think right now the evidence suggests that a single treatment or two treatments of psilocybin in many people will have a benefit that will last several months and maybe longer.”

Former Madison resident Diane Byler said she participated in a psilocybin study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015 for healthy adults. She said she was formerly skeptical of trying psychedelics.

“I saw my brother and some other people experiment with that kind of stuff and thought that just wasn’t for me,” Byler said.

Byler said that after she turned 50, her mother died and she was going through a divorce after being married for 20 years.

Byler said she became interested in participating in the study after making a trip to Peru in 2014 to experiment with ayahuasca, another psychedelic and mind-altering drug.

After trying ayahuasca and learning more about the effects of psychedelics, Byler was approved to participate in the psilocybin study.

Byler said that before she was given the first dose of psilocybin, she went to four separate two-hour counseling sessions to prepare her for what she was about to experience and to give the researchers an idea of what effect the drug could have on different people with different life experiences.

“There’s an eight-hour music playlist that they play each time, so it’s the same music each time. I put on headphones and eyeshades and just went in,” Byler said. “It boiled down to interconnectedness and love and oneness and wholeness.”

Byler’s experience is exactly what Raison and his team of researchers is replicating to find out if psilocybin can effectively treat depression.

“What about that could possibly be so powerful that people feel changed a month later, two months later, three months later?’ Raison said. “The short answer is: We don’t know for sure but the data to date suggests that it is the quality of the experience that’s induced acutely in that six-hour psychedelic window that really predicts how people do long term.”

Although Byler said she didn’t consider herself to be depressed at the time she took the mind-altering drug, she said it could “absolutely” help heal someone who is depressed.

She said, “To actually feel it and process it, they say the way out is through. So, instead of just stuffing it down, and actually have a safe place to process whatever it is they need to process.”

Byler added that people who take psilocybin should not go into the journey being fearful because that could cause them to have a bad experience. However, she said the counseling sessions that precede the journey are meant to help calm people so they can begin the journey with the right intentions. Raison said those who are depressed are still likely to encounter bad experiences during their hallucinations.

“The difficult experiences are often difficult in a way that helps people begin to face the experiences, resolve the experiences, get a different perspective on the experiences,” Raison said.

Raison added that the current treatments for depression are decades-old and that anti-depression medications don’t allow people to find and work through the root of their mental struggles.

“If you’re depressed now and you come to me as a psychiatrist and I write you a script for an anti-depressant, you go home and you take the anti-depressant every day,” Raison said. “You don’t sit around wondering,’What is the anti-depressant telling me about my life?’ You either feel better or you don’t. It’s a pill. Psilocybin is not like that.”

Raison added that psilocybin has been studied before and the results suggest “that it may help people quit smoking. There are studies suggesting it may help people get relief from alcohol dependence. There are studies suggesting it may be helpful for people that have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is a very difficult condition to treat psychiatrically.”

Raison said he and his team are currently screening to find 80 people to participate in this study.

“If the data holds true,” Raison said, “it’s a revolution in mental health.”

For more information on the study, visit Usona Institute’s website here.

Get your weather forecast from people who actually live in your community. We update with short, easy-to-use video forecasts you can watch on your phone every day. Download the iOS or Android app here.