How psychedelics could improve our mental health

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — While recent years have seen big changes in Utah’s drug policies — including the passing of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act in November of 2018 — many are still left to wonder why the state has yet to legalize or even decriminalize the use of psilocybin.

Psilocybin is derived from so-called magic mushrooms. Currently, having possession of psilocybin could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years or $5,000 in fines.

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But with neighboring Colorado decriminalizing the use of psilocybin last year, the question “if” it will become legal here in Utah is quickly becoming a question of “when” it will happen.

And as clinical research continues to explore the safety of using psilocybin and its efficacy in medicine, experts and patients alike are calling for its reclassification.

What is psilocybin?

There are more than 200 known species of “magic mushrooms” that produce psilocybin — a substance that, when ingested, is known to generate sensations of euphoria, synesthesia (mixing of senses), and even visualizations.

These mushroom species grow on nearly every continent, with several even growing in forested regions of Utah.

How does psilocybin work?

Once consumed, the psilocybin compounds bind to serotonin receptors in the brain’s primary visual cortex, which reduces the activity of those neurons, and gives users an increased feeling of connection to their surroundings whilst reducing their sense of ego.

Data gathered through clinical research by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine also found that psilocybin changes how this region communicates with other areas of the brain involved in hearing, attention, memory, and even decision-making.

How could psilocybin help?

More recent research has shown that psilocybin-assisted therapy in conjunction with psychotherapy can relieve major depressive disorder symptoms in adults for at least a year in some cases.

In this study by Johns Hopkins involving 27 patients with a long-term history of depression, the results were substantial as the participants showed a 75% response rate with 58% remission at 12 months of treatment and follow-up.

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These findings are crucial for those struggling with depression and mental health in general, as experts are also finding psilocybin to help those with long-term symptoms of PTSD and even addiction.

“They’re having phenomenal results in research studies right now,” remarks Anne Bowden, APRN-FNP with Rising Health Specialty Clinic. “So, we’re really excited about this possibility… It’s all about serving our community. Anything that we can do — especially when it comes to mental health.”

How safe is psilocybin?

Research into the abusive potential of psilocybin shows that it’s not chemically addictive. And though adverse reactions are rare, some could experience symptoms of mushroom poisoning like muscle spasms, delirium, psychosis, and mild gastrointestinal illness.

In other unique cases, adverse reactions include visual flashbacks that can be experienced anywhere from weeks to years after use called Hallucinogen-Persisting Perception Disorder.

What similar treatments are out there NOW for patients?

As the research into psychedelic medicines and their uses continues, many patients have found considerable relief in symptoms with the use of ketamine-assisted treatments. Although ketamine works differently in the brain than psilocybin, it can still have beneficial effects with a similar sensation.

FILE – In this May 24, 2019, file photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. Despite pandemic conditions that made normal signature-gathering almost impossible, activists in the nation’s capital say they have enough signatures for a November ballot initiative that would decriminalize natural psychedelics such as mescaline and psilocybin mushrooms. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Rising Health Specialty Clinic in Hollday, Utah, is one of several providers that offer patients an assortment of treatment options, including Ketamine Therapy, to create synaptic growth in the brain, improve communication among cells, and alleviate depression in patients.

According to Bowden: “What we’ve found is in people with drug-resistant depression — ketamine has been amazing… We can take these patients with no options, that can’t take SSRIs or antidepressant medications, and we can see these life-changing experiences… That’s our hope with these other things (i.e., psilocybin).”

What’s the future like for psilocybin?

With strict laws currently in place here in Utah surrounding the use of psilocybin and no anticipated changes, the options for medical use have yet to take hold despite ongoing research.

In March of 2022, the Utah Legislature established the Mental Illness Psychotherapy Drug Task Force to perform further studies, provide training, and make recommendations on potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin. The task force includes a licensed psychiatrist, a licensed psychologist, and a representative from the Utah Medical Association.

While the legalization (or decriminalization) of psilocybin may not happen in Utah this year, new and exciting benefits surrounding its use are being discovered every day, which could mean changes sooner than later.

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