When 76-year-old Mary Sennewald of St. Louis was a young woman, she was profoundly depressed and suffered from migraines. Therapy and medication weren’t working, and she decided to try LSD.
It was a time when Americans saw psychedelics as part of an emerging culture that questioned authority and sought deeper meaning. Today, psychedelic substances like LSD and “magic” psilocybin mushrooms are often still seen as a vestige of that hippie culture or even a dangerous threat.
But a growing number of recent studies at Johns Hopkins University and other institutions show psilocybin can treat depression, addiction, PTSD and other mental health concerns.
Sennewald, who suspected back in the 1960s that these substances might have healing properties, consulted with her psychiatrist before taking LSD. He gave her his blessing and his home phone number in case she became afraid or anxious. But she didn’t call him, because what she felt during her trip was bliss.
“The peak experience was I was climbing a mountain,” Sennewald said. “I could look out for seemingly hundreds of miles, and the whole universe, the whole world, was just shimmering with the light from within.”
After she processed several psychedelic experiences with her therapist, Sennewald’s depression began to lift, and the migraines came less frequently. She went on to become a psychotherapist and much later to study the healing properties of psychedelic plants with Ecuadorian shamans. Recently, she earned a certification from the California Institute of Integral Studies to provide psychedelic-assisted therapies, partly in an effort to remain relevant. She learned it’s about more than just taking a drug.
“If people are not also making a commitment to change their life — and keeping that commitment — then it’s not going to have an effect,” Sennewald said.
‘Infinitely complex and wondrous kaleidoscope’
Sennewald would like to one day provide psychedelic-assisted therapies to low-income patients using grant money. But therapists can’t offer that treatment in St. Louis or most of the nation because psychedelics are illegal under federal law.
Oakland, Santa Cruz and Denver have decriminalized plant psychedelics including psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote and DMT, making them a low priority for local law enforcement. People in dozens of other cities are working toward decriminalization. But no organized effort is underway in St. Louis, where many people are taking psychedelic journeys on their own, even though medical professionals don’t recommend it.
Dan Conner, co-founder and former drummer and manager of the popular local band Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers, tried mushrooms two years ago to help with stress. Now, tripping has become a routine spiritual exercise.
“It feels wonderful,” said Conner, 43. “It's a really an undescribable experience.”
Every month or two, Conner takes a psychedelic trip. Recently, he took 400 to 500 micrograms of LSD and talked about the experience in real time.
“That’s a good amount,” Conner said. “It feels good.”
Conner likes to walk around his neighborhood as the LSD kicks in. When he returns, about an hour or so into the trip, he turns on some music and lies down on the couch with an eye mask.
“[I’m seeing] all these geometric patterns, like it’s moving, but it’s not just random,” Conner said. “Imagine like a more infinitely complex and wondrous kaleidoscope.”
A few hours in, Conner stopped talking. When he spoke again, he began to cry.
“It’s like this entity is sort of like saying, like, ‘Love’s everywhere,’ like, ‘Can I not make it more obvious?’ like, ‘Look, you’re alive,’” Conner said. “It’s like just infinite love like you’ve never felt before in your entire life.”
In an interview before his recent psychedelic journey, Conner said that he typically enjoys a deep mystical experience on psychedelics and that he’s never had a “bad trip.”
“If I could snap my fingers and give everyone a psychedelic experience, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he said.
‘I’m going to die’
Up to 30% of people do experience difficulty during a psychedelic journey, according to research.
That happened to Josh Masterson, whose first psychedelic trip included a terrifying period. The 32-year-old Washington University social work graduate school student was a freshman in college when he and some friends decided to try mushrooms in the woods. Everything was going well until they got back to the dorm and its narrow walls and sterile vibe began closing in. He began to panic.
“I get this thought in my head that I’m going to die,” Masterson said. “I’m thinking of my sisters and my family whom I love dearly and what a sad story that is, how their brother and son, newly in college, dies from taking magic mushrooms.”
Masterson ran through the dorm, screaming for an ambulance. A friend, who also took mushrooms, guided Masterson to his room and sat next to him on the couch until he began to calm down.
“I started to breathe, and everything dissipated,” Masterson said.
Masterson, who leads meditation classes and wilderness retreats, has now learned the importance of “set and setting,” a person’s mindset and their physical and social environment when embarking on a psychedelic experience. A year later, he tried again.
“I wanted to do it again because I remembered the beginning of the experience, when the boundaries between myself and the natural world dissolved,” Masterson said. “I felt like I was literally invited into the plant world by the plants.”
For Masterson, psychedelics have been life changing. After graduating from college, the business major shunned the corporate world to teach English in a remote part of Thailand and to learn about meditation. Now he’s studying to become a psychotherapist with the hope of offering psychedelic-assisted therapies to his own clients, guiding them through their full range of the experience from ecstasy to the kind of terror he felt on his first try.
“If my future self were sitting by my college self, I’d look myself in the eyes and gently guide myself to a seated position and say, ‘Josh, just focus on your breath,’” Masterson said. “And I’d say, ‘It’s all OK, just let the fear wash over you.’”
In therapist Mary Sennewald’s certification program, she learned that a distressing psychedelic experience can illuminate a person’s greatest fears, providing important material for a patient and their therapist to work through.
“Then you can deal with what’s there and go on and have a richer, livelier life,” Sennewald said. “And that’s really what this is about.”
‘Not hippies trying to get high’
Medical professionals like Dr. Fred Rottnek, director of community medicine at St. Louis University, are wary of personal experimentation.
But Rottnek is enthusiastic about psychedelics’ therapeutic potential. He follows closely the psilocybin studies at Johns Hopkins, where therapists work with participants before they ingest the psychedelic, during their six- to eight-hour trip, and after the experience.
“It allows almost a reframing of an individual to look at his or her life situation. It slows things down so you can almost look at yourself from a dissociative state,” Rottnek said. “I see that these are very useful and under-investigated resources for us moving forward.”
Dr. David Patterson Silver Wolf, associate professor of Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, welcomes the idea of psychedelics as a new medical tool.
“We should all be supportive of the research and those who are doing it,” Silver Wolf said. “These are not hippies trying to get high with their friends; these are serious, honorable people.”
Much of Silver Wolf’s research focuses on addiction treatment. He pointed to research showing how just a few psychedelic experiences can make a difference.
“What got me interested is that if opioid-use disorder can be disrupted or treated with a single or two doses of psychedelics over the course of a year, then it sounds better to me than somebody having to take medications on a daily basis,” Silver Wolf said.
The quick, lasting results of psychedelics also interests Dr. Natalie Gukasyan of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic Research. Electroconvulsive therapy, which can help alleviate depression by delivering small electric currents to produce a seizure, must be repeated a couple of times a week for several weeks, she said.
Infusions of the psychedelic ketamine, now legal for treatment of depression, have a similar drawback.
“The evidence points to ketamine being a more transient sort of antidepressant that would require ongoing treatment,” Gukasyan said.
Not everyone is considered a good candidate for psychedelics. Participants for Johns Hopkins’ psilocybin studies are screened for a history of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or having a relative with either of those diagnoses.
“There is a theoretical higher risk of something like prolonged effects from psychedelics or increased risk of psychosis,” Gukasyan said. “But we've run hundreds of people through our studies, and we haven't had a single episode of anything like that.”
In addition to studying people with mental health conditions, Johns Hopkins researchers also plan to examine the effects of psychedelics on people who aren’t suffering from depression, addiction or PTSD. Psychedelics work by binding to serotonin receptors, altering the flow of information in the cortex, and scientists are curious about whether micro-dosing, taking small amounts several times a week, might bolster creativity.
“The effects of a drug like psilocybin is that different parts of the brain that don't normally talk to each other start communicating,” Gukasyan said.
But whether someone is seeking to enhance creativity or treat their mental illness, legal therapeutic use of psychedelics is up to 10 years away, she said.
Deeper studies are needed, Gukasyan said, “before we can really say that this can be a game-changer."
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