Tripping the Psyche: Treating Depression and Anxiety With Psychedelics

People are taking psychedelics to treat ailments from ADHD to depression. Tune in, turn on, get well.

Los Angeles is on fire the first time I visit *Jacob. Summer has barely started, and a heat wave has settled over the sprawl. Wildfires close parts of the freeway; images of suburban cul de sacs going up in flames play out on the evening news. And the air conditioning in my Echo Park rental remains on full blast.

Jacob is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives on and manages a roughly 200-acre ranch nestled in the mountains outside the city.

Not long after I arrive, Jacob takes us around the property on a golf cart. The ranch serves—like much of the architecture and landscape of Southern California—as a location for television, film, and commercial shoots. My host points out different corners where sets were built and later destroyed by film crews. This isn't why I'm here today.

He's been replacing his daily intake of antipsychotics with weekly doses of psilocybin mushrooms. And he’s never felt better.

Jacob is off his medications. This is intentional, though he admits he stumbled into it accidentally.

He tells me he recently began treating his depression, anxiety and ADHD with psychedelics in lieu of the pharmaceutical medications he was prescribed. Basically, he's been replacing his daily intake of antipsychotics and amphetamines with weekly doses of psilocybin mushrooms. And he’s never felt better.

“I was prescribed antipsychotics such as Klonopin for the depression; Xanax for the anxiety and amphetamines like Adderall or Ritalin for the ADHD,” Jacob says. “I was told I would have to take these pills for the rest of my life.”

The pill diet seems to be the story for many people suffering from depression or ADHD. And it helps. In thousands of cases, medications have improved the lives of the people taking them. 

Not for Jacob. Which is what led to an unplanned experiment in self-medication.

“I felt like my artistic identity was dwindling, and that I was chasing my own tail, or just trying to recreate work on the same level that I had been making it previously,” Jacob tells me.

“I wanted to try psychedelics to 'spur my creativity,' so to speak. After I started eating mushrooms, I began to notice a sense of clarity that I hadn’t felt in ages, even after I came down from the trip."

A few days after his first psychedelic experience, Jacob realized he hadn’t been taking, or even feeling the need to take his medication. This unexpected sense of well-being was a welcome side effect to his renewed artistic focuse.

Two to three nights a week, Jacob will ingest anywhere between three and five grams of psilocybin, working his dosage up gradually. Occasionally, he'll smoke DMT, if mushrooms are unavailable.

DMT synthesized from plant matter. Photo: Ben Karris for THE KIND

Back in the here and now, we’re in Jacob's living room, surrounded on all sides by piles of books chronicling the psychedelic experience. Various guides on different types of natural mushrooms and medicinal plants litter the couch, and I take pictures of their covers on my iPhone. I riffle through volumes of Jacob's old sketchbooks and notebooks that are stacked next to me. A room off to the right is filled with puppets he designed and manufactured by hand, and the walls—a bright mix of sky blue and light pink—are lined with his paintings, drawings and other pieces of artwork. I take Snapchat videos of his two dogs while we talk about his experiment.

To be clear, Jacob was not microdosing—taking a minute amount of a substance such as LSD or psilocybin on a regular basis and only experiencing effects on a sub-perceptual level. Jacob was full on resetting: Embracing a complete psychedelic experience. 

Jacob continued dosing on a regular basis, though he didn’t completely give up his medications, or stop seeing his psychiatrist during his experiment.

“At first, I didn’t tell my psychiatrist that I was taking mushrooms until I had more information to report, but I did want him close by," Jacob tells me. "I’ve tried to go off my medications before this and would always end up ‘going crazy’ again within a few months.

“When I did end up telling him, he was intrigued. But of course, these are illegal drugs; so he had zero experience in this form of treatment.”

Jacob's psychedelic experiment is just one thread in a larger narrative of psychonauts exploring alternative avenues of self-medication. Many in the scientific community believe psychedelics carry strong medicinal merit, particularly in treating and exploring mental health disorders. These substances are seen as more than party drugs.

Dr. Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized LSD in a laboratory, was known to microdose with his “problem child” as a means of working at an elevated creative state. A New Yorker article running earlier this year recounts the father of LSD's sharing-is-caring behavior prior to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970:

"Albert Hoffman gave away large quantities of [LSD] to any researcher who requested it, in the hope that someone would discover a marketable application.”

Wall Street traders, corporate creatives and outright artists are microdosing on a daily basis to improve functionality without the tunnel vision of amphetamines. In forums and on reddit, advocates and explorers are connecting and sharing dosage tips and techniques and swapping journal entries of experiences. Media reports of tech entrepreneurs experimenting Steve Jobs-style with psychedelics to achieve innovative clarity have hit the mainstream news cycles.

One microdosing enthusiast on a reddit forum writes that microdosing with LSD leads to being more inclined to embrace the day than to escape it.

“It [microdosing] helps push me out of depression and relax if I'm in a manic stage. It has made me more socially outgoing and aware of the emotions I'm experiencing, as well as the ones others are experiencing," the user writes. "[Microdosing] really helps with motivating me to get out of bed in the morning."

The notion is as if microdosing re-balances whatever seems to be off-balanced.

Most anecdotal claims around microdosing depict a general feeling of improvement in mental health and cognitive function. And while some studies have indicated that psychedelics can be effective tools in treating mental health, clear scientific data and hard clinical research has not been fully accessible in the past few decades.

In a letter titled ‘End The Ban on Psychoactive Drug Research,’ the editorial board of Scientific American calls for dramatic reform around research on Schedule 1 drugs, claiming: 

“LSD, ecstasy (MDMA), psilocybin and marijuana have, for decades, been designated as drugs of abuse. But they had their origins in the medical pharmacopeia.”

The authors of the letter note that research processes regarding psychedelic drugs are grueling—“It can take years to receive approval for a clinical trial from both regulators and hospital ethics committees,” with high licensing fees and a limited supply chain of the drugs needed for testing—and that U.S. drug policy and public stigma cause barriers of their own.

The War on Drugs may never come to an end, but popular opinion is shifting, and some politicians are moving in what psychedelic researchers believe is the right direction.

Nese Devenot, PhD,  a postdoctoral fellow at University of Puget Sound describes today’s climate of psychedelic research in an academic setting as a "psychedelic renaissance" on social media. 

In the documentary Psychedemia, Devenot discusses the differences in academic standards between today’s testing in comparison to lesser structured research in the past. “A lot of the science now is meticulous, in terms of methodology. There are protocols for exactly how the settings will be carried out, and everything is very carefully watched and recorded by different authorities.”

In August 2015, Devenot worked as a short-term research fellow, studying, transcribing and chronicling the Timothy Leary papers, housed at the New York Public Library.

In an email to THE KIND, she points to a recently published article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that conveys a sentiment of optimism, citing numerous formal studies conducted across the world in recent years involving psilocybin, LSD and MDMA as forms of treatment for everything from depression and anxiety, to PTSD; and anxiety stemming from terminal illnesses.

“Preliminary findings show some successful results for these treatments, with significant clinical improvements and few—if any—serious adverse effects.”

When it comes to psychedelic research, all waves lead to Dr. James Fadiman. Fadiman’s book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide is one of the most widely cited works on the subject, while his studies involving psychedelics began in the 1960s, at the edge of the Ken Kesey world.

Fadiman worked as part of a Menlo Park, California-based team called The International Foundation for Advanced Study, which conducted psychedelic research on mental health and elevated creativity via an investigational drug license, granting his team permission to use LSD and mescaline in its work. Fadiman served as the liaison between research ongoing in California and at Harvard University until a letter from the government banning the use of psychedelic drugs brought progress to to a halt. 

Fadiman first learned about microdosing from Albert Hoffman. For years, the researcher has received microdosing testimonials via journals and reports documenting self-administered experiments from people all over the world. 

Fadiman tells The KIND: “Most are seeking help in treating anxiety, depression. Maybe two-thirds of the mail I receive is from people either trying to get off of their pharmaceuticals because of the side effects, or they’re not taking them, and they’re asking: ‘Will microdosing help me?’ ”

After reading more than 100 reports, Fadiman’s answer is often yes.

“It looks like microdosing [psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD] is very useful and helpful for many people with anxiety and depression. People have also said that it’s ‘much like Adderall but without any of the side effects.’ More importantly, people have reported that they tend to live slightly healthier—they exercise more, eat better, meditate more frequently—as they microdose. It’s like resetting your dials to that mid-point.”

Fadiman asks that people let him know how they feel after a month of microdosing every fourth dayA college student he's working with microdoses to overcome a stutter, and the symptoms have improved.

“The notion is as if microdosing re-balances whatever seems to be off-balanced.”

Though these reports are by-and-large positive, they by no means represent the hard scientific data needed to sway legislative policies around the world.

Such is the conundrum.

When I visit Jacob a few months later, Los Angeles is cooling down and his psychedelic trips are less frequent. He isn’t taking his medications either.

“I started [the mushroom experiment] on December 25, 2014. And did it for the last time in August."

We walk around the ranch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A light autumnal breeze not present on my first trip out here carries us across the property. We discuss how chemical reactions brought on by psychedelics offer insight into perceived foreign realities that can sometimes feel like divine experiences. The fireworks are real, and for Jacob they make the bad feelings less bad.

As we make our way back toward his house, I take photographs of Dusty Lee, one of Jacob's newest puppets. The trees surrounding us have all changed color; some leaves have withered and fallen to the ground in piles while others hang on to their branches as if in defiance.

Dusty Lee, the psychedelic puppet. Photo: Ben Karris for THE KIND.

Jacob knows he hasn't cured himself of his diagnoses, but he feels a hell of a lot better than he once did. And it shows.

"I’m not filling my prescriptions anymore. I don’t even drink. I have a baby on the way, and I’ve never been happier or felt more level headed.”

Much like the California soil we’re walking on, mental health is a diverse landscape devoid of any straight paths. It is a terrain of mountains, expansive ocean beds and canyons that descend into the unknown. 

When it comes to treatment, what works for some, may not for others. 

But as long as there are fireworks exploding, ideas colliding and chemicals reacting behind our eyes—curious minds such as Leary, Huxley and Hoffman; and to that end: Jacob, Devenot and Fadiman—will continue to seek out what sparks the fuse and quells the flames.

*Name changed at request of source.