Researchers in the US are trialling psilocybin as a therapy treatment for frontline healthcare workers

By Francesca Johnson

Updated Jan 10, 2022 at 01:15 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

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We’ve previously seen how revolutionary applications of the drug psilocybin have been recommended to therapists as a new, additional form of treatment for a variety of mood disorders such as depression, and, in more recent years, anxiety. Be warned however, the recommendation didn’t last long, as using it as an additive to therapeutic treatment has recently been shut down for now by medical boards in Australia. That being said, all hope in the drug is not lost as the US has also taken an interest in the benefits of magic mushrooms with a new study that aims to see if it can alleviate the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers.

A new study in psilocybin for COVID-19 mental health

Aside from the obvious worldwide turmoil, panic, and unfortunately high numbers of deaths, the global pandemic has also caused multiple unapparent setbacks in all of our lives. From changing the realm of dating forever to the extreme social isolation of lockdowns, we are still adapting to our new normal and mental health has obviously taken a huge hit because of it. This is especially the case of healthcare workers, as a national poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and the Washington Post found that 30 per cent have received, or feel they need, mental health treatment due to the endless stress of the pandemic.

Keeping the door to the future of shroom therapy open, Big Think reported that in the US, the University of Washington (UW), funded by the Stephen & Alexandra Cohen Foundation in Seattle, is currently recruiting frontline healthcare workers into a study to test the effects of psychedelic-assisted therapy for mood disorders—previously tested by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on mood disorders in people with cancer diagnoses. The difference here is, this current study, whose current sole trial site is UW School of Medicine, specifically looks at the treatment of depression and anxiety in healthcare key workers.

The latest research will see 30 participants randomly split up into either a test group or placebo group and will then be administered either psilocybin or a placebo. The test will also include a series of multiple visits under the supervision of specially trained psychotherapists. Required two 90-minute counselling sessions will take place for all participants, to get them comfortable with the study’s therapists and to prepare them for the psychedelic experience (as we know it can be a bit of a trip). Third time’s the charm, as upon the third visit a dose of synthesised, pure psilocybin—equal to three grams of dried mushrooms—will be handed out to the test group participants, provided by the Usona Institute.

UW Medicine oncologist, palliative-care specialist, professor of medicine and lead investigator, Anthony Back told UW Newsroom “We hope to help [healthcare key workers] address their feelings of grief, inadequacy and moral distress as a result of caring for COVID patients.”

Psilocybin banned in Australia

As previously reported, the drug was trialed in an Australian study across the pond and was green-lit by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (MUHREC). The study conducted by Incannex Healthcare Ltd looked at shrooms as an addition to traditional therapy for both patients and therapists in order to treat a specified anxiety disorder—generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

However, VICE recently reported that medical regulators in Australia rejected the proposal for legalised clinical use citing its lack of research as its biggest hindrance. Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) rejected the application made last week, Wednesday 15 December, to downscale the severity of drugs like MDMA and psilocybin in the country’s Australia’s poison standard.

In a recently released statement, the TGA expressed that its decision was based on fear that the legalisation of such drugs could invoke abuse of them in non-clinical contexts. The overturned decision, which was also supported by organisations like The Australian Medical Association (AMA), means that the drug cannot be used in psychotherapy treatment for any mental illness. The drug can’t even be used for treatment in a medically-controlled environment under the authorisation of a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. This  dampened the aspirations of many researchers citing this as a big leap that could’ve become a new reality in possible treatment options.

The future of psilocybin in the US

However, such setbacks in Australia did not stop Back from looking at psilocybin’s potential back in the US for COVID-19-related mental health issues—particularly for the trauma shared among frontline health workers. “At the outset there was this agonizing uncertainty about how easily the virus was transmitted. Then many practitioners saw patients die right in front of them, with no family present, so the clinicians had to carry the emotional burden that family members normally would bear. And many of these patients die in great physical discomfort, gasping for breath. It’s been really hard, and in some instances traumatic,” Back explained.

Speaking about the Washington-based research to UWNewsroom, Back acknowledged the disappointment that the placebo group will probably experience, however, he did add that they will receive two hours-long sessions with two therapists. For many of them “it will be the first time that they have taken that much time to process the feelings that negatively affect their attitudes toward work and life,” he shared.

Psilocybin allows a unique type of psychological exploration for the research field, “It makes your brain more plastic and your beliefs and desires less rigid,” Back claimed. “It can allow people to break up habitual cycles of thoughts and beliefs,” he further divulged.

To enroll in the study, you must meet eligibility criteria and complete a scientifically-validated questionnaire to confirm any existing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This questionnaire will also be revisited after the sessions in the investigation to gauge any changes or progress made to truly test the drug’s effectiveness.

Pandemic brain is as real as it gets, especially for healthcare workers who have had to carry much of the weight we’ve all felt on our shoulders ever since COVID-19 first appeared. And if psilocybin can help you with that, why not try your luck?

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