Make Room for the ‘shrooms!

Just when I was about to give up on Happy, along comes a radical new treatment for depression

Original image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

I COULD BE A POSTER BOY for the term Treatment Resistant Depression.

When I was 21, and first saw a psychotherapist, I had the rather sweet and naïve belief that I would get ‘better’ soon.

And by ‘better’, I guess I meant happier – with myself, with my relationships, with my past, present and future.  

Now I’m 55, I’m content with many aspects of life – I married a woman with a heart of gold, and have got just a bit wiser over the years – but I haven’t left my depression behind.

Just the other week, I was trying to get to grips with feeling down again, and decided to do some journaling.

I found myself drawing a bubble with the words ‘Hate Myself’ in the middle of the page, and 11 – eleven! – arrows radiating around it, detailing exactly what I disliked about me.

So, no, I wouldn’t say I was as happy as I’d hoped to be at 21.  

As for ‘Treatment Resistant’, I just made a list of all the therapy I can remember having, and I reckon there are about a dozen professionals who’ve tried but failed to sort me out.

And then there are the periods that I’ve been on antidepressants – three times in total, sometimes for years, sometimes just for months.

A third of people with depression are Treatment Resistant”

But I last gave up on the pills about five years ago, when I realised that I couldn’t possibly be any unhappier than I was while on them. I suppose you could say that I haven’t responded very well at all to conventional treatment.

What I didn’t realise, however, is how many people are struggling in the same way: according to The Guardian, the NHS estimates that only 50 per cent of talking therapy patients go on to recover from their condition.

Meanwhile, studies show that about a third of all people with depression could be classed as Treatment Resistant, which is an awful lot of faces to get on one poster…

“If you broke your leg and went to an orthopaedic specialist, you’d expect it to be fixed,” consultant psychiatrist Ben Sessa told The Guardian recently.

“You wouldn’t expect to be prescribed painkillers for the rest of your life. But if you present to your psychiatrist in your early 20s with a severe mental illness, there’s a good chance you will still be seeing them when you’re 60.

“As an industry, we’ve come to accept that we can never cure our patients. But why not?”

Psychoactive substances may lead to greater capacity to feel happiness”

Sessa is chief medical officer at Awakn Life Sciences, the UK’s first high-street provider of an emerging new concept in mental health care – psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.

This new approach, in which patients are given small amounts of a psychoactive substance in combination with talking therapy, was given Breakthrough Therapy Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2018.

This means that it may offer a “substantial improvement over available therapy”, and comes after promising results from a number of university studies using psilocybin (the active ingredient from ‘magic’ mushrooms), MDMA and ketamine to treat depression.

Although the studies have so far been small in size, there are indications that giving patients psilocybin or ketamine is at least as effective as using a conventional antidepressant, notably a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI).

And excitingly, according to people taking part in a recent trial at Imperial College, London, the psychoactive substances led to a greater capacity to feel happiness, instead of the emotion-blunting commonly reported with SSRIs.

Recalibrated, reset, and enjoying life?”

The author of the Imperial report, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, told the BBC that some psychedelic therapy trial participants reported feeling “recalibrated, reset like they haven’t for years” and “enjoying life”.

But scientists in the field are still cautious, and stress the need for more research to back up the positive news from the small-scale studies so far.

They also warn that the treatment is suitable only for those on whom conventional therapies have already failed, and that going on a psychoactive ‘trip’ is “often very challenging”, even with small doses.

But, as a long-term sufferer from depression, I can’t help but be excited about the possibility that we may have found an effective treatment at last.

One of the most optimistic private companies investing in the new approach hopes that it could be available on the NHS as early as 2025, in which case millions of people like me might just get to see ‘Happy’ by 60, after all.

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