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Some studies show hallucinogens can help treat anxiety and depression.

On a summer night in 2012, teenagers Israel, Nick and Mac* sat in the basement of Israel’s house in Columbia and cut magic mushrooms into tiny pieces with a pocket knife. They stirred them into their McDonald’s chocolate milkshakes and slurped down the chunky drinks. It wasn’t the best plan, but at least the chocolate flavor masked the typical bitter, dirt-like taste of the mushrooms.

Psychedelic mushrooms, also called magic mushrooms or shrooms, contain psilocybin, which is the psychoactive ingredient found in over 200 fungi that generate hallucinogenic experiences. Their long, slender stems set them apart from non-hallucinogenic mushrooms, and when ingested, they cause your pupils to dilate. Beyond that, everybody’s experiences with them might be different. Sense perception is heightened. Sounds. Colors. Tastes. Touch. Smells. Everything can become blissful or intoxicating.

Beyond youthful curiosity, psychedelic mushrooms are now the focus of a growing body of research looking into the possible health applications of hallucinogenic drugs.

1960s counterculture

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When used as a medical treatment, controlling the environment and dose are vital, says William Richards, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University.

Hallucinogenic drugs date back far in recorded human history. As early as 1000–500 B.C., Central and South American cultures erected temples to mushroom gods and carved the images of the fungi into stone.

In the 1960s, recreational use of psychedelic mushrooms peaked. Musicians Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd popularized illicit drug use. Before there were music festivals such as Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, there was Woodstock. In 1969, the music festival took place when psychedelic use was at an all-time high.

Although psilocybin had become an illegal drug in the United States in 1968, Woodstock’s attendees still used the drug over those three days. Research with psilocybin continued until 1977 and came to a stop in the ’80s and ’90s due to government regulation. Today, mushrooms are used recreationally, though illegally.

There are risks, but according to research from Brown University, misidentification of psilocybin-containing mushrooms is one of the biggest dangers because poisonous mushrooms can also induce hallucinogenic effects. Ingesting toxic fungi can cause stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea and death.

Research into medical use

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While psilocybin may provide relief from depression and anxiety, it does not cure it completely.

Researchers are realizing the possible medical benefits of psilocybin. At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and New York University, the effects of psilocybin have been studied for decades. In a double-blind study at Johns Hopkins, researchers found that the majority of cancer patients felt relief from their anxiety and depression for up to six months after a single high dose. Patients at New York University had similar results.

Now, researchers are planning to conduct studies to see if the drug can be used to treat depression and anxiety. Their hope is that at the end of the studies, the Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency will reclassify psilocybin so that it can be prescribed to treat mental health disorders.

Psilocybin is not intended to be prescribed and taken repeatedly to treat mental illness, as is done with antidepressants, says William Richards, a researcher from Johns Hopkins. University researchers use different doses while testing to see the shifts in behavior.

And the process must be controlled, or a bad experience is much more likely to occur. That’s why Richards doesn’t recommend trying these psychedelics at home.

“Say you lost your mother when you were a child, and you never completed the grief work, and all of the sudden you tap into that unresolved grief, and you’re sobbing uncontrollably,” Richards says. “Is that a bad trip, or is that a therapeutic breakthrough?”

People still experiment on their own with hallucinogens. Nick was one of them.

When he went to the doctor at age 16 for what he thought was depression, he was surprised when he left with a diagnosis of ADHD and adjustment disorder. The doctor told him a lot of times depression can be a side effect of these two disorders.

Before he, Israel and Mac took psilocybin in the form of psychedelic mushrooms, they did some of their own research. He didn’t initially take the hallucinogen for its healing power, but after the trip, he noticed a difference in his emotions and confidence. Mushrooms helped him stop worrying so much about what other people thought of him.

While sitting on the basement’s carpeted floors, Nick had a profound experience where he sorted things out. He describes it as if he were thumbing through records. “I was able to look at and modify the files who make up who I am,” he says.

Higher doses (22 or 30 milligrams) are more likely to facilitate transcendental or peak experiences for the person. When the researchers at Johns Hopkins used psilocybin on cancer patients to help them live more fully without anxiety or depression, they used a high dose. “Those experiences often trigger profound changes in self concept, so that afterward, people feel like there is intrinsic self worth within them,” Richards says.

As a treatment, there are risks to taking mushrooms, but they are manageable. Shrooms should be taken in a comfortable space with people that the user trusts. If you’re worrying about who might walk into your bedroom while you are tripping or what you need to be responsible for during the trip, you can never truly let the drug fully alter your state of consciousness, Richards says.

Letting go is the first factor in having a successful experience. The second and third are having a supportive setting and taking the appropriate dosage. The amount of effort that goes into the process is the reason researchers don’t recommend trying this at home.

“You really have to be grounded in a secure, honest, open relationship with someone,” Richards says. “Maybe it wouldn’t have to be a formal psychotherapist down the road if these drugs ever become legal, but it would certainly be with someone that you really deeply trust.”

Recording history

During their trip, Israel, Mac and Nick kept what they called their trip notebook, so they could write down what they were experiencing throughout the night. Nick had made a playlist that echoed through the basement as the trip continued, and they sporadically scribbled on the pages.

“As the night wound down, I still felt control over my identity and my personality,” Nick says.

The night was so meaningful to the teenagers that Nick and Israel even got commemorative tattoos. It’s a circle with a triangle that cuts through it. “This circle represents everything that is intangible. Our relationships, ideas, everything we use to communicate,” he says. “The triangle represents everything the circle is not.”

Almost six years later, all of the boys — now young men — have left Columbia and gone their own ways. Yet they are still bonded by this hallucinogenic experience. Nick kept the black composition notebook with his tattoo sketch inside and multiple notes to themselves and each other. One note still resonates.

Nick: Do you guys feel as happy as me? I can give you some... 

*Editor's Note: Only the first names of the subjects are being used. This is an update of the story since it was first published.

A previous version of this story had an incorrect byline. The author is Corin Cesaric.

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