by Sarah Stuteville
I have experienced mental health challenges for most of my life. My first panic attack was when I was 11 years old, and I found myself paralyzed and hyperventilating in a public restroom on a family outing. Some periods, like the ones when I have been in talk therapy, have been better than others. But anxiety, and its shadow-twin depression, have always been there.
As a new mother, my experience with postpartum depression sent me to psychopharmaceuticals. And my first year on antidepressants was a gift. They gave me enough relief and space for the talk therapy to work. For me to begin to look around and see some joy in my life as a parent.
But 18 months in, the days that opened with panic and ended in tears were increasing. My vision of my future was again a darkening tunnel. A close friend mentioned that relief might come from an unexpected source: magic mushrooms.
I had taken mushrooms to get high before, but this was something different. There would be no hallucinations, the dose is far too small. But research is showing that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has benefits for anxiety, depression, trauma, and addiction — in part because it can help create new neural pathways in our brains.
In the fall of 2020 — my last year as a graduate student to become a counselor — the buzz around psychedelic therapies was everywhere. I was even reading some of the studies for classes. Curious and desperate, I weaned off my antidepressants and started my first round of micro-dosing a few months later.
And it worked.
Within weeks I felt better. My sense of perspective, and humor, were returning. I felt I could see more clearly the things that sent me spiraling. And when the spiraling happened, I had faith that it would pass. It wasn’t as though my feelings were changing — I was still sad and scared sometimes — it was more like my relationship to those feelings was changing. I could even have compassion for them, and by extension, myself.
This is a common story among those of us who are passionate advocates of psychedelic therapies. They have helped us, and we want them to be available to help others.
“My own journey was that I was experiencing intractable depression and nothing helped … I was at the end of my rope,” says Susan Robb, a micro-dosing coach. “I tried [micro-dosing] and it was amazing. And it was almost immediate.”
Robb, whom I have worked with, emphasizes that “integration” with other strategies, like meditation, writing prompts, and outside support, is a key to maximizing the benefits of psilocybin.
“It was life-changing to me and I wanted to help other people,” says Robb, who notes that interest in micro-dosing and psychedelic therapies is on the rise — despite the fact that most psychedelics in Washington State are currently illegal.
The Legal Question
But that may be changing. Psychedelics for mental health are having a cultural moment, from the Dr. Bronner’s soap labels shouting the benefits of psilocybin in our bathrooms, to the current Hulu series “Nine Perfect Strangers,” where the head of a wellness retreat secretly doses guest’s smoothies to prompt epiphanies.
And Washington may be next in a series of states that have decriminalized psilocybin and other psychedelics, in part because advocates cite potential mental health benefits. Legality would result in regulation and standardization of psychedelic therapies and likely the rise of training and certification programs. This all means increased safety and availability of these treatments for more people.
Current illegality inflates the cost of many of these therapies, making them prohibitive to lower-income people. And choosing to engage in a psychedelic underground has vastly different implications for a white, middle-class woman like me than for members of BIPOC communities.
Like everything that exists inside our interlocking, unjust systems, psychedelic therapies — whether legal or illegal — are influenced by racism and capitalism.
Cultural appropriation — especially the phenomenon of white people co-opting and profiting from traditionally Indigenous healing practices — is deeply prevalent in psychedelic healing subcultures.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that psychedelic healing has a long history in Native and Indigenous practices,” says José F. Mata who does MDMA-assisted (MDMA is also commonly known as “ecstasy” or “molly”) therapy with MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) — an organization that researches and promotes the benefits of psychedelic therapies.
Mata lives in California where MAPS — a national organization — has FDA approval to conduct such therapy.
He encourages people to research the Indigenous roots and histories of the therapies they use. For example, he told me the story of María Sabina, a Mazatec curandera (medicine woman) from Oaxaca, Mexico, who introduced many westerners to psilocybin in the 1950s and 1960s. When word of her therapies spread, Sabina experienced significant social and legal persecution.
Mata also suggests that people interested in using psychedelic therapies support BIPOC practitioners and get involved with organizations like The Chacruna Institute — which promotes diversity, equity, and access in psychedelic science.
Threat of Monetization
Robb and Mata both welcome the increased access and safety that would result from legalization. And they worry that mainstreaming psychedelics into the capitalist economy comes with significant threats.
“I’ve had experiences of people coming to me and wanting to monetize what I’m doing but having no experience with psychedelics at all, so all they see is the money,” says Robb, who herself charges for coaching on a sliding scale and notes that pharmaceutical companies are already working to produce and manufacture synthetic psilocybin.
I don’t know how you rescue something from capitalism’s craven grasp. But when I think about this inevitable tension — between a therapy that could help mitigate human suffering and the capitalist forces licking their chops at it from the wings — I think of Mata’s description of how these treatments work.
“Psychedelics in general help slow things down,” he said. “And when things slow down, there is a chance to re-imagine in the space available.”
This re-imagining has been true for me and for many others. And I hope those numbers keep growing — though the process is sure to be fraught and complicated. Because the more of us who can access slowing down and imagining a new world inside ourselves, the bigger chance we have to re-imagine a world outside ourselves.
Maybe we can even imagine a world where healing and self-discovery isn’t an underground or an industry but a fundamental right.
Sarah Stuteville is a writer and therapist with a background in international journalism. She writes about feminism, social justice, mental health, media, parenting, and relationships. Sarah has reported from over a dozen and wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times.