Mushrooms – magic or otherwise – are everywhere at the moment. They’re in fashion, appearing on everything from Zara jumpers to Urban Outfitters earrings to Online Ceramics T-shirts. You can buy pots shaped like mushrooms, mushroom lamps, and prints adorned with encyclopaedia illustrations of different species. And that’s not all: on TikTok, the #tripptok hashtag – purposely misspelled to evade moderation – has over 74 million videos, the vast majority of which discuss using shrooms. Over on Netflix, a memorable episode of The Bold Type saw Jane and Sutton take a shroom-induced trip at work, while the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi offers a deep dive into the reported powers – healing and otherwise – of mushrooms.
It’s plain to see that this rise in interest in mushrooms concerns not only the aesthetic appeal of red and white toadstools but also the effects of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms. In the UK, magic mushrooms (or shrooms) have been a Class A drug since 2005. However their use is on the rise. In 2015 the Global Drug Survey found that 8.6% of respondents used magic mushrooms; in 2020 this had leapt to 16.1%.
Twenty-year-old Mimi* first took shrooms on her 19th birthday. “I’d never tried a drug before that,” she says. “But my friend always told me how great shrooms were, so I said okay, I’d like to try them.” After taking them Mimi, who lives in Leeds, experienced a five-hour trip which changed her life. “It was a very nice feeling of pure happiness,” she recalls. “After that, I looked at life through a very different lens.”
Shrooms, more properly known as psilocybe, are a particular type of mushroom which contain the psychedelic chemicals psilocybin and psilocin. These were already Class A prior to the 2005 law change. The penalty for possession is up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. Meanwhile the penalty for supply and production is up to life in prison and/or an unlimited fine.
Psilocybin disrupts high level ruminative circuits in the cerebral cortex and so liberates the brain from depressive thinking immediately.
Professor David Nutt
Yet young women report taking shrooms recreationally and doing it predominantly to aid their mental health. There’s been considerable recent research into the impact that psilocybin can have on mental health conditions – notably depression, anxiety and addiction. Back in 2016, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris and the team at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London published groundbreaking findings from their research trial investigating the efficacy of using psilocybin alongside psychotherapy in patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression, who account for around a third of all people with depression. The research found that “depressive symptoms were markedly reduced” following treatment involving two doses of psilocybin and therapy.
Like Mimi, 24-year-old Starr enjoys using shrooms. Starr currently lives in the Netherlands, where ‘truffles’ containing psilocybin are legal, and first tried shrooms there. She continues to use them recreationally. “Recreational highs with shrooms are intense. Your heart will open, you will feel so much love that your body tingles with peaceful and loving energy. I experience a baby-like wonder for the world when I take a recreational dose,” she says.
“Shrooms are better than other recreational drugs because they bring you closer to nature and loving yourself and others,” she continues. “The pleasant feelings linger for days after.” Mimi shares this sentiment: “Other drugs like MDMA and ketamine are very numbing so you’re not in touch with yourself when you do it. But shrooms make you more alive and more aware. Your senses are just insanely elevated and you’re way more in touch with your emotions.”
Alys*, 25, lives in London and also uses shrooms. She began using them recreationally at festivals and parties. “I just liked the way they made me feel. It was like I was getting this ‘up’, this warmth, this softness.” For Alys, there was also a practical reason for getting into shrooms: as she was on antidepressants at the time, drugs such as MDMA were totally off the cards due to the risk of serotonin syndrome. “Shrooms were just this perfect thing that would enable me to be social, to see all these beautiful colours, to be silly, to really laugh with my friends but also to feel quite peaceful within myself.”
Sixty years ago, shrooms were largely seen as the preserve of hippies and beatniks, whose presence so alarmed older generations that it culminated in President Nixon declaring a “war on drugs” in 1971. But if we go back thousands of years, mushrooms were revered as gifts from the gods. The Aztecs often used them in rituals and religious ceremonies, while some historians argue that a 9,000-year-old cave painting in Algeria depicts a shaman holding mushrooms. Today, in certain academic circles, psilocybin mushrooms are commanding this sort of respect again.
Earlier this year, a small study was conducted by researchers at Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research. It found that psilocybin is “as good at reducing symptoms of depression as conventional treatment” and that “when it comes to actively improving people’s well-being and ability to feel pleasure, the psychedelic drug may have had a more powerful effect.”
Professor David Nutt, neuropsychopharmacologist and member of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, explains how psilocybin breaks down negative thinking processes instantly. “SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – a widely used type of antidepressant) work in the limbic system (the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses) to reduce stress responses and allow the brain to heal over a period of weeks,” he explains. “But psilocybin disrupts high level ruminative circuits in the cerebral cortex and so liberates the brain from depressive thinking immediately.”
In the past Mimi found it difficult to deal with her emotions but says that shrooms have given her clarity. “It kind of brought everything to the forefront so I said okay, I’m going to do them every once in a while to stay in touch with that side of myself,” she says. “It feels like a reset button in my life every time I do it because it helps me realise all of my emotions and get in touch with my inner self. Afterwards I have a huge, positive change in my life, every single time.”
A trip on her 20th birthday was particularly helpful in terms of making progress with her mental health. “It made me feel very real – everything that I’d been avoiding for the past couple of months just came and attacked me all at once,” she recalls. “I felt like I had to change my life around. I realised what wasn’t making me happy and changed so many things in my life after that. It had such a positive impact on my life.”
Starr also uses shrooms therapeutically and regularly microdoses, adding that her relationship with shrooms became more “intimate” when she moved from Manchester to the Netherlands and went through a major depressive episode.
“I went from having no energy and no desire to live life to working through my problems, taking the time to think about what was hurting me, how I could heal and how to go on to live the life that I deserve to have,” she says. “I find I can just get up and do things because the anxious thoughts and feelings of dread have disappeared and I can think clearly.”
Likewise, after using them recreationally Alys realised that shrooms could help her therapeutically, too, as she began to use them more often during lockdown. “My self-esteem was just on the floor and I genuinely feel like shrooms helped me with that because I realised that I can actually be a positive presence in a room,” she says. “I remember a few times where I went to the bathroom or something at a party and just had these breakthrough, epiphany moments. I remember one time just looking out at the sunset, and thinking Wow, you really need to stop being so hard on yourself about everything.”
Alys adds that she found SSRIs ineffective in treating her depression and ended up feeling suicidal earlier this year. “The sertraline wasn’t working,” she said. “For me, shrooms should have been an alternative, for sure. If I could have them instead of sertraline, I think it would make such a massive difference to my life. I might not have spent so long wanting to kill myself, to be quite frank.”
Reality would hit me and it just felt like a separate world. I kind of went back into this negative, depressive headspace during the week. Shrooms have had a massive positive impact on my mental health but what has really changed things for me has been therapy and self-respect.
Compelling as these stories are, the fact remains that, at present, psilocybin is not legally available as an alternative treatment for depression. As long as shrooms remain illegal in the UK, there will always be risks to your physical and psychological health when picking up from unregulated dealers.
Even if you forage for your own mushrooms, they can be easily confused with poisonous species which can prove fatal if ingested. Ultimately, while the research findings are promising, they are by no means a green light for people to go out and take shrooms as and when they please. Dr Carhart-Harris, who was involved in the Imperial study, recently told The Guardian in no uncertain terms that attempting to self-medicate with magic mushrooms would be “an error of judgment”.
Moreover, the research isn’t trialling treating depression with shrooms alone. Crucially, it’s trialling treating depression with controlled doses of shrooms and therapy. Although Alys is using shrooms outside a clinical trial, she stresses that it was the combination of psilocybin and therapy which really helped her overcome her mental health difficulties. She explains that while her highs on shrooms were euphoric and eye-opening, it was difficult to carry this feeling over into day-to-day life.
“Reality would hit me and it just felt like a separate world. I kind of went back into this negative, depressive headspace during the week,” she says. “While shrooms have had a massive positive impact on my mental health, it wasn’t enough on its own. The thing that has really changed things for me has been therapy and self-respect.”
With the current government dogmatically dedicated to cracking down on even the most petty instances of drug use – and the Labour leader hardly any more progressive – it doesn’t look as though shrooms will be legalised or decriminalised for recreational use any time soon.
That said, things are looking up regarding the possibility of psilocybin being legalised for therapeutic use. Professor Nutt is optimistic as recent research is yielding promising results. “This use of psychedelics for the treatment of depression is now being trialled in addictions too and could revolutionise many aspects of psychiatry,” he says, adding that shrooms are, ultimately, relatively safe. “If you took a lot you could vomit or have a bad trip but beyond that the risks are very low.” We can hope that if research continues to produce positive findings, psychedelic therapy will become available to those who need it in due course.
There is still a battle to be fought, however. As Dr Carhart-Harris has said: “Many will continue to see psychedelics as illegal drugs that are, by definition, dangerous […] the misinformation and sensationalism around psychedelic therapy in a population as prone to polarisation as ours is, is a concern.”
Empathy is needed here. Empathy for sufferers of depression like Alys who have hit rock bottom and would try literally anything to feel better. And it’s worth remembering that in the past humans have turned to more harmful and brutalising methods of treating depression – such as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) or lobotomies – than a naturally occurring drug which has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. Caution is needed and breaking the law is a serious offence but researchers working on clinical trials are clear: we have nothing to lose by pioneering psychedelic therapy, and everything to gain.
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