Hope Or Hype: Can Psychedelics Treat Depression?

The science behind the controversy.

Woman in field feeling and looking calm Nadya Korobkova / Shutterstock.com

As difficult as it can be to manage depression, there is hope. It begins with education — and it helps to have an open-minded approach.

Depression or major depressive disorder is a serious mental health illness that affects the way a person thinks, feels and acts. In a nutshell, it is a mood disorder that brings a persistent feeling of sadness, loss of interest, and other severe symptoms.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, around 3.8% of the entire world population is affected by depression, which translates to approximately 280 million people of all ages. This illness interferes with one’s daily activities and may lead to suicidal thoughts, which is why treating this condition properly is crucial for everyone who is facing it.


How to deal with it? According to the National Institutes for Mental Health, depression treatment typically involves three basic elements:

  1. Self-help, such as meditation, healthy nutrition, sports, etc.
  2. Professional therapies with psychologists and other mental health professionals
  3. Taking the right medicines, such as SSRI antidepressants

This is the traditional formula for treating such mood disorders. But many people diagnosed with depression are turning to an alternative treatment option: psychedelics.

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How do psychedelic trips treat depression?

In recent years, alternative (non-clinical) ways of treating depression have been gaining momentum.


One such alternative treatment method involves psychedelic trips. People who’ve tried them, as well as researchers and scientists, claim that the consumption of psychedelic drugs can contribute to healing a depressed mind in ways that medicine can’t.

According to experts, psychedelic trips can even improve the conditions of people who suffer from non-treatable, severe depressive disorders.

But is it really true? Can psychedelics alleviate depression, or is it just hype? In this article, we are going to answer this question and help you grasp the concept behind psychedelic depression treatment better.

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Psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, “magic mushrooms,” and the like, have long been known as powerful tools for consciousness transformation.

Psychedelic experiences, which often cause powerful hallucinations, are believed to trigger outside-the-box thinking, give access to “hidden” knowledge, and provide a new, deeper outlook on life. No wonder why such drugs have been used for holistic healing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But what does psychedelic therapy look like these days? Today, psychedelic trip sessions are broadly used for treating severe mental disorders, such as depression.

According to numerous studies, such an approach can help even with non-treatable cases. Apparently, psilocybin contained in psychedelics can reduce the activity of certain brain regions, thus, regulating and improving a number of cognitive functions.


Studies suggest that even a single psychedelic session can significantly alleviate the symptoms of depression.

However, an important part of the therapy is the presence of an experienced mental health professional. Under the supervision of a reliable guide and supported by talk therapy (before, during, and post-session), psychedelic trips can lead to complete healing.

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How does psilocybin affect the human brain?

Psilocybin is a chemical compound contained in certain species of fungi (mushrooms). It is a prodrug element responsible for the hallucinogenic effects of “magic mushrooms".


Simply put, psilocybin normalizes the brain’s landscape, allowing more seamless mind-wandering and, thus, paves the way for more efficient depression treatment in the future. It relaxes fixed patterns of thinking that often get in the way of success in untreatable depression cases.

In order to assess the possibility of psychedelic treatment of depression, it’s crucial to understand the mechanism of action of this compound on the human brain in the first place. So, how does it affect your brain?

The first and primary effect of psilocybin consumption is the relaxation of the Default Mode Network (DMN).

This network spans brain regions that remain more active during passive tasks when a person is not focused on the external world. The DMN is active during mind-wandering and daydreaming. Also, it becomes active when we think about ourselves and others, as well as when we remember the past and plan for the future.


According to numerous studies, people who score higher in depression ratings also have higher compulsive activity in the Default Mode Network. Thus, by relaxing and reducing the activity of the DMN, psilocybin can really treat depression.

According to a recent study by scientists from UC San Francisco and Imperial College London, psilocybin also improves connections between different brain regions, thus, freeing people from long-held patterns of excessive self-focus and rumination.

Finally, this compound is also proven to fix human patterns of thinking. According to fMRI scans, depressed people’s brains have more chaotic “landscapes,” with deep wells that prevent seamless movement between one’s own thoughts and perspectives.

At the same time, fMRI scans show that psilocybin therapy basically flattens the depressed brain’s landscape, allowing a person to access new insights, thoughts, and perspectives. 


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Can using psychedelics be dangerous?

So, you already know that the mechanism of psilocybin’s action on the human brain is scientifically proven to have a therapeutic effect and, thus, has the potential to alleviate depression even in its most severe conditions. But does this mean that any use of psychedelics has a positive effect? Not at all!

When resorting to psychedelic treatment without supervision, one can face a variety of threats and negative side effects. Namely, here are the biggest hazards of self-use of psilocybin:

1. Development of psychosis and schizophrenia

According to many experts, psychedelic therapy is contraindicated for patients who have a certain family history of mental illnesses. Namely, people who have relatives diagnosed with schizophrenia should stay back from such treatment due to the high risk of the development of such disorders.

Of course, psychedelics aren’t always associated with the development of schizophrenia symptoms. There is a wide array of genetic, environmental, and other factors that can push the progression of this disease.


However, it’s important to understand that any substance abuse can lead to a so-called drug-induced psychosis. It is a form of the condition that takes place when a person experiences symptoms linked to clinical psychosis, such as hallucinations or delusions.

According to experts, episodes of drug psychosis may eventually pull the clinic psychosis or schizophrenia trigger and provoke the development of these diseases in people prone to them.

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2. Bad trip

One of the largest risks of taking psychedelics is the experience of a bad trip. In a nutshell, a bad trip is a highly negative experience that can be accompanied by fear, dysphoria, terrifying illusions, paranoia, panic, obsessive thoughts, and even physical pain.


Needless to say, bad trips can be incredibly traumatic and have a lasting negative effect on one’s physical and mental health. There are several things known to increase the probability of such a journey. These include:

  • Taking excessive doses of a drug
  • Starting the session in a negative emotional state
  • Running the session in the wrong setting with excessive external stimulation
  • Mixing drugs with alcohol

Although these are the things that increase the likelihood of having a bad trip, the truth is that it can happen to anyone, anytime. And the biggest problem is that once someone has a bad trip, it can be barely possible to stop it. Therefore, being in the right set and setting and having an experienced sitter next to you are crucial for having a positive, healing experience.

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3. Existential Crisis

Another big threat associated with psychedelics consumption is the development of an existential crisis.


Due to their hallucinogenic effect, psychedelics can cause the distortion of the habitual picture of the world. Without proper preparation and post-session discussion, such experiences can cause false memories or make you feel like you’ve received life-changing insights that are difficult to integrate. For instance, a person of non-Jewish origin may recollect the horrors of a concentration camp.

This can cause severe existential anxiety and bring unbearable harm to one’s mental health.

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4. Risky Behavior

Finally, there is one more fact that should keep you back from the self-use of psychedelics on your own. When experiencing a psychedelic trip, one can have impaired judgment.

Sometimes, people report believing that they have superhuman powers, which causes them to do hazardous things, such as trying to jump off a building. Without professional supervision, there might be no one to stop you from behaving like this.

So, there is an actual threat to your personal safety, as well as the safety of people around you.

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Education, an open mind — and patience

A psychedelic trip can be a very joyful, eye-opening, and profoundly healing experience. At the same time, in the wrong setting and with the wrong set, it can also be an incredibly frightening and painful experience.


All in all, psychedelic trips really can treat depression. But, there is a need for the right setting, mindset, and professional mental health guide. And, often, it takes more than one session to get tangible results.

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Natalie Maximets is a life transformation coach with expertise in clinical and existential psychology.