Depression and Grief Wrecked a Man's Life—Until He Took Magic Mushroom Ingredient

We are in a psychedelic renaissance, in which long-stigmatized drugs such as psilocybin—the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms—and MDMA are being assessed in clinical trials and showing promise for the treatment of a host of mental health problems, ranging from depression to PTSD.

Last month, mental health care company Compass Pathways announced the results of a Phase IIb study—the largest psilocybin therapy trial ever conducted—that found the drug appears to be effective as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression.

Five years earlier in 2016, researchers at Imperial College London completed a small study that was the first trial to assess psilocybin as a treatment for this condition.

Imperial's pioneering study formed the basis for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's designation of psilocybin as a "breakthrough therapy"—an action intended to expedite the development and review of drugs designed to treat serious or life-threatening conditions—and much of the subsequent research on this issue.

Among the participants in the 2016 study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, was Kirk Rutter.

Five years later, Rutter, now 51, spoke to Newsweek about his experiences of the trial and its impact on his mental health. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

How was your mental health in 2016?

I was suffering from very bad depression that was basically kicked off by the death of my mother. She was ill for some time. It was a terminal illness. My mother told me she had started to come to terms with dying and felt it might be some relief from the pain she was experiencing. And so I thought, foolishly, that I was quite prepared and it wouldn't impact me in a normal way, because I'd already done some grieving through dealing with her illness and supporting my dad, who was a full-time carer for her. I really thought that it would take some of the sting out of the grief.

But when it finally came, it was the opposite—it was like being hit by a truck. I got stuck in the grief. At the same time, I was living with really terrible neighbors who were above me. They would fight, they were alcoholics, they would smash things up. I had this oppressive presence and noise above me all the time. So, I didn't really have any peace at home. And then I'd go to work and, well—work is work. Then around a year after the anniversary of my mother's death, I ended both the relationship with my partner and a friendship. That was another big loss. I found it very difficult to be positive.

The treatment-resistant depression trial involves people who are depressed and have tried a few treatments that haven't worked. I tried some antidepressants and didn't really like the way they made me feel. I knew anyway that it wouldn't cure anything or sort anything out, it was just chemically altering how you felt. Deep down I didn't have a lot of faith in it because I knew it wasn't really working on the problem itself. And then I did a year of talk therapy. I think it helped in some ways, but I was still feeling kind of terrible. I was still being hit by the grief. And then the opportunity came to do the psilocybin trial.

So, I had a telephone screening with Imperial. They checked my notes to make sure I had had treatment and accepted me into the trial based on the screening. That was where the journey started.

Had you tried psychedelics before?

I was new to psilocybin and had never tried psychedelics before.

What was your view of psychedelic substances at the time?

I was worried about it. I remember walking through Camden [an area of London] and seeing the magic mushrooms there when they used to be on sale. I would think, 'Dangerous, stay away from that,' because of all the stuff that was in the media. You know, the kind of bulls*** stories about people jumping out of windows and stuff like that. So, I didn't have a positive view of it, really.

How many times did you receive the psilocybin during the trial?

Twice. There was a 10 milligram session, which was fairly psychedelic, and then there was a 25 milligram session, which was the more potent dose.

Before that there was a telephone screening, then a meeting in person that lasted about two or three hours. We talked about everything—what I could expect, what the issues would be, what could potentially come up, etcetera. I was very nervous. During the sessions I had a therapist either side of me and it was all underpinned by music.

The 10 milligram session was quite pleasant. It was nice, being relaxed and listening to the music. You're in a hospital, so I felt safe eventually, even though I was very anxious about it. It came on quite slow. I started seeing almost like an orange glow, just kind of flickering slowly and then it would get more and more intense. And then it was like going down a psychedelic tunnel on a toboggan. Nothing major really came up in the first session, although I was really blown away by hearing Indian instruments like the sitar. It just sounded absolutely amazing. So, that was that.

And then a week later, it was the 25 milligram dose. I was very nervous about that because I'd had the 10 milligram and that was quite potent. I thought, 'This is gonna blow my socks off.' But even with the 10 milligrams I thought this could be really dialled up—I knew that the colors are quite muted, for example, so, I was looking forward to it in a way.

In the end, it was very potent. It really penetrated me emotionally in a way that the 10 milligram dose didn't. The music kind of seeps into you, it gets into your pores. So, particularly sad music was quite moving, for example. And then I reflected a lot on situations with my mother and I started to see that the way I was hanging on to the grief … I was afraid to let go. I had a realization that you can let go of the grief and it doesn't mean you're letting go of the person. And that you can still have that connection without the grief poisoning you and keeping you in that place. Previously, I was worried that detaching from the grief or letting it go would almost be a betrayal or something like that. So, that was a good insight.

There were a few other things as well. I realized that I needed to make a connection with one or two people. I did that and it worked out quite well. I also told [the therapist] about these thoughts I had that go round and round. This rumination that was almost like a fixed record—this negative playlist. And that was broken.

It was quite a startling experience. It knocked me out of that hole and allowed me to start picking things up again. I needed to make some infrastructure changes though. As I said, my neighbors were kind of toxic, alcoholic criminals. So I realized I needed to get out of that situation. Mentally, I wasn't in a place where I could have done that beforehand. After the trial, I sold my flat and I bought a house because I didn't want to live underneath anyone. That was one big change that really was very helpful. I also moved in a more creative direction work-wise, which was very good.

I just think, generally, I started taking care of things I needed to. I still have the grief—not as bad as I did, it's still there—but I'm not feeling it all the time. So for me, it was really beneficial. It was overall a positive experience.

So would you say you experienced lasting changes from those two doses?

Yes, very much so. You have these insights and awareness of stuff. I think psychedelics are the difference between knowing something and then really absorbing it and feeling it.

What's your view on growing interest in psychedelic therapy?

I think it should be available. The efficacy of it looks good. It's been used for thousands of years. It's a very humane intervention.

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Psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, has shown promise as a treatment for depression in clinical trials. iStock