Would you take acid to help your depression?

For many people, depression or mental illness is something they’ve lived with for years, often treated without success or without long term solutions. But a rising tide of evidence seems to be supporting the use of microdosing (taking tiny amounts of) psychedelic drugs for a positive outcome.

The allopathic medical profession’s approach to dealing with depression has – by and large – been to combat the symptoms of depression with medication, and/or offer counselling or therapy to underpin the causes. And there’s no doubt that this approach has a high level of success. But a growing number of people are advocating the use of hallucinogens to treat a range of both mental and physical conditions, and it’s hard to ignore the optimistic feedback.

Brains under the influence of psilocybin create different connections between cortical regions, which could represent ‘freer’ thinking.

Whilst there is still no concrete medical research into the efficacy of this, and we should of course point out that the possession and/or usage of hallucinogens such as LSD or ‘magic mushrooms’ is illegal, it’s hard to argue with the mounting evidence. A study by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris (Imperial College London) executed under clinical conditions certainly shows some positive results with the use of psilocybin (the active ingredients in magic mushrooms). But to date, research into microdosing has mostly been anecdotal or based in psychology as opposed to physical research.

Another study conducted in 2012 shows that brains under the influence of psilocybin create different connections between cortical regions, which could represent ‘freer’ thinking in the brain and could alter patterns of negative thinking. This free thinking could support breaking the cycle of depression. It’s hard, also, to write an article about this subject without mentioning the exhaustive research undertaken by psychologist Dr James Fadiman, whose studies shows the results of more than 900 peoples’ experiences.

So are psychedelic drugs the answer to treating mental conditions? Do they open doors to our subconscious and help us engage with freer thinking, to realise our full potential and help us to remain positive? 47 year old Russell*, who has suffered periodically with depression, consistent with mild bi-polar disorder since his late teens, certainly thinks so.

What I noticed from the first day was that I had a very good mood. I was calm, unstressed and extremely tolerant.

“I go through cycles of depression and mania over roughly a two year cycle. Over the years, I have been prescribed several anti-depressants of the SSRI variety; fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram and escitalopram, and taken them for periods of between six months and two years. They can be very effective at stopping the symptoms but there are inherent problems with each type, and some of the side effects can be worse than the initial complaint. SSRIs can take a month to become effective, during which symptoms can become very severe (suicidal thoughts etc). I also felt less emotionally sensitive, which I disliked, and the drugs ultimately did not address the cause of my problems. They also take up to six months to come off, due to the side effects (nausea, dizziness). Overall I became fed up with their merely symptomatic relief and decided to try other methods. I have also had courses of post-Freudian psychoanalysis which have been helpful.”

Russell is not an untypical example of someone with long term mental wellness issues. The treatments he’s received to date are pretty standard, but it was ultimately his dissatisfaction with the cycle of medication that led him to explore microdosing.

“There was a spate of news articles about a year ago about microdosing which I read with interest. I had read many years ago about the work of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and their research into psychotropics as therapeutic psychiatric tools. I am aware of the effects LSD has on the brain and the way in which it works; I’ve taken LSD and psilocybin many times recreationally, firstly in my early twenties but also moderate doses maybe three or four times a year in the last decade. I read up on the suggested micro dose and decided to make an educated guess with the LSD tabs I obtained. I guessed the tab would be about 30mg (having researched dosage/effects online) so divided it into eighths and took an 1/8 (6mg) under the tongue first thing each morning for two weeks.

“I seemed to have judged it well and, as I hoped, did not have any immediate changes in perception.  What I noticed from the first day was that I had a very good mood. I was calm, unstressed and extremely tolerant. Traffic jams were not a problem nor were queues in supermarkets etc. I took pleasure in my surroundings, as if I were on holiday, I suppose, whilst not being distracted by them. I slept and ate well and felt generally that life was good.

“I have to say that I am usually quite anxious and often find it hard to get to sleep. I made sure on the first day that I had nothing essential to do in case things did not go to plan, but for the rest of the fortnight I was able to continue about my normal business (at the time I was fitting a kitchen!). I had not let anybody know that I was doing this experiment as I wanted to find out whether any change in my behaviour would be noticeable by others. (It was not!)

We don’t know what the risks in the long term might be.

“I found that if I was very still and concentrated hard I would get a very slight ‘trippy’ feeling but this could be banished at will and I did not encourage it.”

For Russell, the experiment has been a positive experience. And it has had lasting effects.

“I found the whole experience to be enjoyable and I would count it a success. I retained my optimism and good mood for several months after the experiment, had no side effects at all and the recipients of the new kitchen were extremely happy! I would definitely do this again. I am interested in anything beneficial to mind and body. I am a week into fermenting and drinking kefir which has improved my alertness and mood. I have also experimented with so-called ’smart’ drugs or nootropics such as Piracetam and Noopept which also improve concentration, alertness, memory and libido.”

Psychedelics advocate Dr James Rucker of King’s College is still keen to caution supporters. Speaking to the BBC he cautions; “The definition of a microdose is that you don’t notice the subjective effect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not having any effect on you. We don’t know what the risks in the long term might be. There was some concern before 1970 – when the drugs were being used clinically – that in people who were liable to develop schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, the drugs might actually uncover those problems in some people. Some studies showed that that might be a risk, some studies showed that it wasn’t. So again, it’s another area where we don’t know.”

*Name has been changed

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  • Fascinating. I took a lot of magic mushrooms as a student. The negative side was always deep paranoia. The positive side was mostly hilarity but I found you needed to take it with trustworthy people. Having suffered from depression I am very interested in this article.

  • I took mushrooms as a young chap , thinking oh there natural not really a problem I had a terrible time , I had a complete breakdown , it was terrible, it cost me a lot of time and the drugs they treated me with I think where worse then what I took , I’m glad someone is trying new methods and mabe in a controlled way this could work , I don’t think mental health treatment as changed much there all to ready to prescribe drugs , I think the system frowns upon young new doctors who question the older sometimes set in there ways doctors , also I don’t think any one can truly appreciate just how bad a trip can be unless you have done it , I read my records later in life and to be honest it was shocking they didn’t really have any understanding of how I felt , in fact they wrote I was malingering , that sort of outlook never helped me and people who take drugs are not all the same , I deserve help the same as anyone else


Sam Harrington-Lowe

As editor at the Tonic, Sam works with an extraordinary array of...

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