Taking a Deep Look at Psilocybin for Depression Research

psilocybin for depression

Michelle Janikian

Psilocybin for depression is becoming a major avenue of clinical research. The Usona Institute out of Madison, Wisconsin is about to begin the largest psilocybin-depression study in the US. Part of the FDA’s drug approval protocol, this phase 2 clinical trial will test the magic mushroom compound in 80 individuals for safety and efficacy in treating major depressive disorder (MDD).

When Usona co-founder, Malynn Utzinger, MD presented at this year’s Horizons Conference, she explained that she and co-founder Bill Linton originally wanted to look at psilocybin for depression and anxiety in those with terminal cancer. But when they brought the idea to the FDA, the government organization basically said: Why limit yourselves to depression in cancer patients? And so they changed gears to research psilocybin for depression more generally.

“It is our duty to make sure a potentially effective medicine gets to the widest… group of medical need,” Utzinger said on stage. She went on to explain that depression affects 300 million people worldwide and is predicted to be the second-largest cause of medical morbidity by next year, to further show the need for this research.

Psilocybin Depression Studies

So could psilocybin help those millions of people? Usona is hopeful, especially among the large portion of people with depression for whom traditional treatment, like anti-depressant medication, does not work. They’ve recently secured 7 clinical trial sites that will conduct this research and give qualified participants psilocybin along with therapeutic support. The sites are located around the US and include Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of California San Francisco, Yale University in Connecticut, University of Wisconsin-Madison, private testing sites in Chicago and Miami, and NYU in Manhattan – which is also the first site to complete training of facilitators and begin recruiting participants.

People are very interested in trying this new depression treatment. In fact, Utzinger said in her talk that over 6,000 people have volunteered for the 80 available spots in their phase 2 trial. 

Although this is the biggest study in the US looking at psilocybin for depression, this isn’t exactly a new concept. Outside of clinical trials, folks have been reporting reduced depression symptoms from psychedelic experiences – and peak experiences in general – for a long time. In fact, a 2017 study that looked at lifetime psychedelic users in “naturalistic settings” (meaning outside of a trial, but whether it’s for fun or ceremony is unknown) found them to be less “psychologically distressed” and suicidal than users of other substances. 

Over at Imperial College London, their team of psychedelic scientists have been looking into this even further, trying to figure out how psilocybin works for depression, both on a psychological and neurological level. Clinical psychologist from the Imperial team, Rosalind Watts, PhD and her colleague Ashleigh Murphy-Beiner, spoke right after Utzinger at Horizons, and presented a paper Watts authored which gives practitioners a framework for facilitating psilocybin for depression therapy, called the “ACE (Accept, Connect, Embody) Model.” 

Watts developed this idea after facilitating participants’ psilocybin experiences during Imperial’s first psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression trial. During “psilodep 1” 20 people were given psilocybin-assisted therapy, and 19 had decreased depression symptoms at week 1 and nearly half at week 5. Plus, none of their participants began a new course of anti-depressants until after week 5

Now, she tells Psychedelics Today over the phone that Imperial is halfway through their second study on psilocybin for depression; they’ve seen 38 out of “65, possibly 70” participants in a trial that’s comparing psilocybin to an SSRI antidepressant for depression treatment efficacy.

Psilocybin for Depression: The ACE Model

The ACE Model (which should be published before the end of the year) highlights psilocybin’s ability to promote psychological flexibility as a key function in how this therapy works. Essentially folks move from a psychologically rigid place where they’re stuck ruminating on negative thoughts to a more flexible, open, and accepting place, post-psilocybin session. 

Watts describes it to me in terms of a ski slope. That our minds, or our “default mode network” is like a skier who follows the same path in the snow until they’ve become deeply ingrained grooves. Then a psilocybin-assisted therapy experience is like a snowplow that comes in and evens out the entire mountain. And so folks are suddenly freed from their ruminative ruts and now have the option to ski anywhere (or think about anything) they please. “They feel that they can think a different way. That they can have new thoughts and see themselves slightly differently,” Watts says. “They can have a sense of space and freedom, mental clarity, not stuck in those deep groves.”

It’s this same idea that her colleague at Imperial, Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, made famous, that psychedelic experiences can “reset the brain” or “shake up the snow globe” allowing for new thoughts and perspectives. “It’s a disruption,” says Watts. “It’s actually that disruption that allows for a reset.” Yet, she explains that doesn’t happen so easily for everyone, and she doesn’t think it’s healthy for folks to go into these experiences with that expectation, because if they aren’t magically “reset”, they can be extremely disappointed.

“They’re often in very, very desperate states. Sometimes they haven’t been outside of their homes for years and their relationships have suffered and they’re feeling very isolated,” Watts says of the depression participants. “The amount of expectation and pressure that is on them for those experiences is huge.”

Therefore, in the ACE Model, they frame the whole experience in terms of a journey – rather than a reset – for participants, to try and lower the pressure and encourage the acceptance of all experiences as they come. That includes accepting challenging material that may arise as well as not making participants feel like a failure for “resisting” the medicine; in the ACE Model, it’s all part of the experience. And that’s where preparation and integration become critical to the whole healing process. 

“It needs to be a therapeutic intervention where that person’s unique set of fears and hopes can be gently sat with, processed and held so that the person that’s sitting with them has some sense of the complexity of the whole scenario,” Watts explains. “Because so often the healing isn’t actually just in the trip, it’s in the environment, it’s in the relationships that you have in the room. And actually, often it’s as much about the narrative, the story you co-construct [as the psilocybin].”

When all the pieces come together, when people feel fully supported and understood, then psilocybin can help folks out of depression by helping them see themselves and their lives more clearly. The process can also include planning actionable steps during integration that participants can take to improve happiness, like being less hard on themselves and spending more time with community or in nature. 

Watts described the psilocybin healing process in a 2017 paper as people “moving from disconnection to connection” or “from avoidance [of emotions] to acceptance” and that’s very much part of what they try to instill during the therapy sessions. The ACE Model also includes guided meditation, and during a preparatory session they have participants visualize a journey, often a diving expedition where they’re encouraged to go deep into the dark parts of their mind in search of pearls of wisdom. The therapists remind divers that pearls are often found in scary, prickly oyster shells, so it may not always be easy, but the value will be great and worth the struggle. 

This process of psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression is personal, and experts like Watts and Utzinger both point out its high rate of success is likely as much about the deep connections participants feel with their therapists as it is about the effects of psilocybin. Unlike taking anti-depressant medications for depression – which tend to numb people’s feelings – psilocybin and the therapy surrounding it encourage people to dig deep into their emotional worlds to try and heal themselves from the inside out.

The Future of Mushrooms for Depression

Even though psilocybin-assisted therapy is working for people in initial studies, it’s often not a permanent fix. Watts says many people from her trial have found that their depression symptoms come back after a few months. However, when I ask her about this, and about the potential future of legal mushrooms for depression therapy, she’s hopeful folks will have more options, including opportunities to do psilocybin sessions once every few months or so. She also adds that she thinks there’s lots of room to develop integration practices for more long-term depression relief, which could include integration groups that go out and do meaningful activities together, like planting trees.

Obviously this is just the beginning of scientific research looking into this treatment. And hopefully, as law and science catch up with nature, there will be more options for folks to access this therapy for depression in the near future. 

Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends, and education. She’s the author of, “Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms – From Tips and Trips to Microdosing and Psychedelic Therapy”, and her work has also been featured in Playboy, DoubleBlind Mag, High TimesRolling Stone and Teen Vogue. One of her core beliefs is ending the prohibition of drugs can greatly benefit society, as long as we have harm reduction education to accompany it. Find out more on her website: www.michellejanikian.com or on Instagram @michelle.janikian.

Jac Harrison – DMT Inspired Music: How DMT Mimics The Near-Death Experience

In this episode, Kyle sits down with Jac Harrison, a grammy nominated music producer. Kyle and Jac talk about music as therapy, how DMT mimics the near death experience, and how Jac produces music based on frequencies of mystical experiences.

3 Key Points:

  1. Jac shares his story about his near death experience, and how DMT has been a therapeutic option for him to cope with his crippling anxiety and PTSD.
  2. Jac is a music producer, who uses frequencies from mystical experiences to produce music. His music helps people with addiction, sleep issues, anxiety, and more.
  3. Music is not an FDA approved medicine, but if there is music that tricks your mind into thinking you have taken a medicine, then it should be an option for those suffering.

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Show Notes

About Jac

  • In 2008, Jac was newly married with a baby on the way
  • He needed a new job, and accepted one with Whole Foods Magazine
  • Around 2011, the owner of the company became ill, and gave his company to his daughter, who was awful
  • Jac said that he knew something had to change
  • He started his music career in 1993, went under a lot of stress, and went through a divorce
    • Everything started to go okay with his music career, money was pouring in
  • The first album Jac produced was the Musicians Collection Project
  • He had a ton of anxiety after the divorce, and had high blood pressure
    • He took some cold medicine, on top of his blood pressure medicine, totally forgot about it, then decided to have a glass of wine with a friend
    • The next thing he knew, he was in an ambulance getting his chest pounded on
    • They told him he was in and out all night, and practically died
  • After this near death experience, he felt amazing!
    • But the feeling of greatness only lasted about 3 weeks, and then his anxiety came back, and it was crippling

A Synchronistic Event

  • Jac says he doesn’t believe in magic or witchcraft or any woo woo
  • For his 39th birthday, he was working a trade show
  • He ran around his hotel in Las Vegas, screaming that he felt he was going to die
    • He didn’t know how, but he could feel it
    • Everyone thought he was crazy
  • Moments later, was the shooting right outside of his hotel
    • It was the Las Vegas shooting
  • He does believe in coincidence
    • He had this overwhelming feeling that something bad was going to happen, it was his intuition

Understanding the Experience

  • After trying to figure out what this all meant, he took a 2000mg bar of chocolate to blast off, trying to relive his near death experience
    • He said, there was a lot of frequency, and as a musician, he felt like he could mimic it
    • His first album, and first song on the album, Relief, was about his experience when he died
    • His music is found at MindToyBox
    • Each song he did after that, catalogs the DMT experience he had
  • “An old projector TV, I had one for a while, it was great. The light came on and told me I needed to change the bulb. I changed the bulb and saw in a new and clear way forever. That’s what DMT is like.” – Jac
  • Kyle says that when he attended COSM for the DMT Spirit Molecule release party, Rick Strassman was there and said that the idea that DMT comes out of the pineal gland is just a hypothesis, and people took it and ran with it as truth

Frequency for Healing

  • After he smoked DMT, he heard this humming, and so he started humming and recording it as a frequency for the album
  • He took opium, and then figured out the frequency that substance performs at
    • He wrote music, based on the mathematical equation on how opium works and releases
    • He says it has helped others detox off of opium
  • Jac cant take mushrooms because he is allergic, so he takes DMT
  • Jac worked with a man who had gone through a ton of trauma, he had gone through combat
    • He kept reliving his combat trauma when he would try to go asleep
    • He smoked DMT, and really relived the experience, and was able to let go of it after that
    • “Your mind is a bitch.” – Jac
    • “If you can lock onto a memory, and dissociate it with something, and re-associate it with something else, Every time you can go back to that memory,you can relive it in a way that it’s tolerable, and get over it.” – Jac
  • Jac says without this, he would not be able to function, and he would be institutionalized
  • Jac’s music is Alex Grey’s form of art creation
  • It is made to go with journeywork experiences
    • It is supposed to mimic taking a pill, so you don’t need to take the actual pill
    • It is supposed to guide people when taking different psychedelics
    • His tracks match the frequency of specific psychedelics

Malta Hypogeum

  • The Malta Hypogeum, the oracle chamber, is a cave with naturally occurring frequencies
  • Raymond Reif is an underestimated person in history
    • He beat cancer using frequencies in the 30’s and 40’s
  • “If we’re not going to someone to get drugs for something that we need drugs for, and solving our problems using plant based medicines, music therapy, and frequencies, we are much better off.” – Jac
  • Jac came across psychedelics when trying to treat crippling anxiety
    • Kyle is the first person he has told this NDE story to
  • Alzheimers is not a neurological problem, it’s a perception problem
    • Psychedelic medicine should be used for research to treat cognitive health problems, PTSD, alzheimers, etc
  • “If the earth gives us something for our body, we should be able to take that at the same time we are able to take modern medicine.” – Jac
  • Jac says that he started doing this type of work as more of an Atheist, and after the psychedelic experiences, he says he has become more spiritual


  • Jac says that his intuition and discernment came after his near death experience
    • Kyle says that this happens after mystical experiences, we become more in tune with what is going on around us
    • “I believe that we have something in us, that is triggered, when we have a fear of death.” – Jac

Final thoughts

  • Jac recommends Relief as the first track for listeners
  • He extends himself to people who are heavily anxious, have severe PTSD, or depressed, to come to him, and he will make music for them
  • He said that this is not medicine, but if there is music that tricks your mind into thinking you have taken a medicine, then it should be an option for those suffering



About Jac Harrison

Having spent most of his adolescent life medicated to treat ADD/ADHD, Jac developed a dependency on the medications and could not function without them. When he stopped using them, his anxiety was so bad that he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009; so he took his love for music with his understanding of mathematics and developed music to help himself get off all the medication. Mind Toy Box is the result of his work.

John B. Cobb – Whitehead and Psychedelics – Part 4

John Cobb - Part 4

This is the fourth and final blog of a podcast recorded in John Cobb’s apartment in Claremont, California. This was recorded during a small weekend conference on psychedelics titled “Exceptional Experience Conference.” You can listen to the full talk in this episode of Psychedelics Today.

John Boswell Cobb Jr. is an American theologian, philosopher, and environmentalist. Cobb is often regarded as the preeminent scholar in the field of process philosophy and process theology, the school of thought associated with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.

John Cobb: Obviously, I’m not going to put this forward as a great psychedelic experience, it still doesn’t feel like it’s just simply my talking to myself. It feels like I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t thought about this before. Suddenly, yes, of course, that’s what I need to do.

Kyle: It feels like it comes from somewhere else, but it is inside.

John Cobb: But of course somewhere else is not as special somewhere else.

Kyle: Right.

John Cobb: It doesn’t come out of my normal ego consciousness. It feels like that there’s a wisdom in it that was not my wisdom. There’s an otherness about it.

Kyle: Right. And that it’s coming from somewhere.

John Cobb: I know. They’re coming from somewhere, it is immediately… Vision is so spatially oriented that if we talked in a visual language somewhere else is going to be very prominent. With just hearing music, the location of the music isn’t that important, is it? It’s the music in your ear or is it inside your body? Is it in the airwaves around you? Is it where the orchestra is? Well, yeah, any and all of the above. But you see a book, all right, that book is on top of that book. It’s so very clearly located and each object that you see has boundaries. And so that just creates a language and a culture.

John Cobb: The difference between Gautama and the other great Indian thinkers, for Gautama when you seek the self, there is nothing. But the others there is Atman, and Atman is the same as Brahman. The ultimate substance. And Gautama and many of the Buddhists assume that if you conceptualize at all, you will be misled. That just shows how powerful concept and visualizing is such a scene too. Whereas I belong to the view that it should be possible to have… like Bohm was saying, “Okay, let’s just use gerunds.” I don’t think it’s impossible to conceive process. That’s the part, I hope you understand, this is not me anti-Buddhist. I think it’s amazing that 2,500 years ago somebody was able to think so deeply. I regret that the tendency even today is to become anti-concept, when what we need are better concepts.

Joe: Yeah. I’m feeling like you say you can’t skillfully conceptualize process, but perhaps it’s more about feeling like

John Cobb: You can conceptualize feelings.

Kyle: Right. True.

John Cobb: It’s just that our Indo-European languages haven’t, so you can’t quickly think of examples.

Joe: That’s interesting.

John Cobb: And conceptualize maybe the wrong term. But I don’t like a kind of retreat into mysticism. If you say it’s mystical, then you say you can’t think about it anymore. I think we can think about it, and if you don’t want to call it concepts, call it whatever you want. But we can think about processes. And science needs to think about them. And thinking about them doesn’t necessary… I mean, what it has so often meant is locate it in a sight oriented world or substance oriented world, then you’ll see then you’re not really thinking about them anymore. Anyway, that’s why David, I think, has done a remarkable job of thinking about process. And has given us a language that can help us do it. And I think that’s very useful.

Joe: Yeah, I think it’s really helped me quite a bit with perhaps handling psychedelic experiences with a little more grace because it’s not so… Just Lenny has put a lot of this knowledge on us and it seems like it’s really helpful. And it’s hard to put, for me, at this point, to really phrase that well. But it’s certainly been a Boon.

Johanna: What was the one thing that was helpful for you? I’m sure there’s lots of things.

Joe: Lenny’s complicated. And as a result that…. probably more of a gerund type attitude towards the thing as opposed to this is this, this is an Apple. It’s more like, wow, this is just a dynamic flow of things through this very complicated system.

John Cobb: I see. I don’t know Chinese, so my statement that it is not so substance oriented. But when I’ve tried to talk about this with Shahar he points out that the same character can function as either.

Joe: Oh, wow.

John Cobb: An example of a word that this has happened to in English is the word pastor. It was a noun for a long time. You were a pastor. But now people talk about, “I’m going to pastor such and such a church.” No, I think that that gets closer to reality to say a person is a pastor, what does it mean? It means that he pastors. But when you locate it as a pastor, it’s just sort of strengthens this individualistic thinking rather than a focus on the activity.

Kyle: It is versus it’s doing or it’s happening.

John Cobb: Yeah. Well to pastor people means you listen to them when they have something to say and you hear them without judgment. I could go on and on. But that’s what a pastor does. And to call a pastor is really to be pointing into that dimension of activity. The same person who is a pastor is also a preacher, but unfortunately we have a verb to preach so we don’t say to preacher. I just wish there were more cases where I could point to how a noun has just come to be used as a verb. And there are others, but at the moment I’m not thinking of them.

Joe: Do you recall the first time you heard something that made you interested in the positive impact of psychedelics or anything around the beginning?

John Cobb: Lenny was certainly one of the early ones. But I don’t want to say his first because I just don’t know.

Johanna: Right. It was southern California in that period of time when it was probably pretty intense.

John Cobb: But obviously having him, he was really trying to convert me. I appreciated it. This is not a criticism. Anytime one discovers something that’s very helpful, one wants other people to benefit from it.

John Cobb: So my relation to him was the first time this had become something that I really had to deal with. But that doesn’t mean I hadn’t heard of it before. Probably I had heard of it more negatively than positively. Because of course the hippie culture included some negatives. I grew up in a context where drinking was already a bad thing to do. And the tendency in circles I moved in, which by that time has ceased to be particularly strongly against drinking, was to associate alcohol and psychedelics.

John Cobb: I was quite sure alcohol did a lot of harm as well as working well for conviviality… You know what I mean. Of a mixture. So I thought psychedelics, and I had no doubt that some people had great experiences and other people that may found them very attractive, but it… Generally, I suspected that society was better off not to have it. So Lenny was probably the first person who really opened my eyes to the potential of very positive use.

John Cobb: I had another experience not too long after I came to Claremont. I had always assumed that civilization was a good thing. There was a professor at Pitzer College, who I worked with quite closely. We co-taught courses. He was very convinced that civilization was the basic evil.

John Cobb: I’m not convinced. I mean I think every civilization we’ve had has been pretty horrible.

John Cobb: I wouldn’t have said that if I hadn’t had to interact with him about that. But I think if there are people today of course, who just think we need to get rid of civilizations and then we’ll be all right. My impression is today it would be very remarkable if 10% of the world’s population survive without civilization.

John Cobb: Even though I appreciated his opening my eyes, I didn’t walk through that door. And the same thing was true with Lenny, I really appreciated his opening my eyes, but I didn’t walk through that door.

Kyle: I appreciate your openness and curiosity of the subject. For somebody that didn’t walk through the door, you seem to very curious about it.

John Cobb: I’m confident there’s much good that could come from it. And so when there are people who are using it for good, I want to be as supportive as I possibly can. A lot of people today will say, “Yes, we really need basic changes.” But you know what it means to make basic changes in worldview, and most of them don’t. So it’s very comfortable to be in a group of people who when they talk about changes, they know what the-

Joe: Extraordinary change.

John Cobb: Yes.

Joe: Yeah.

John Cobb: Whitehead has made me understand what I think would be the changes that might make us behave in responsible ways. So I don’t feel the necessity of having unusual experiences.

Johanna: And what would be some of those changes?

John Cobb: Have to change from our substance thinking to our process thinking.

John Cobb: This would be a change from our thinking of every individual as self contained, to understanding that we are all our products of our relationships with each other, and that the human individual is… Well, for one thing, I mean from Whiteheadian viewpoint, any individual is the many becoming one. That’s what it is to be an individual. So to be an individual is to be part of everything, is to have everything being part of us.

John Cobb: Economics, as an example, I think economics is the worst, because it is the most powerful shaper of the world and is the worst expression of the university. It assumes radically individual and really the only relationships that count are economic relationships. I think those are just two absolutely erroneous views. If they are not changed, then they have to be changed existentially, not just, oh, that philosophy might work better or something. And it’s because what you do helps to make the existential change that I in no way want to say, “Oh, all we have to do is to do philosophy.” No, no. I think the change has to go way beyond that.

John Cobb: I had one experience out there, which made me very high. So in that sense, but it had nothing, it wasn’t a matter of breathing exercises. It was being in a group where I just felt completely accepted, completely loved. I think that can happen just by the way a group of human beings relate to one another.

John Cobb: I was still feeling that deep comfort when I came home. It took my wife a little while to puncture the balloon. So I’m not suggesting that everybody should always be in that state, but nevertheless that’s a feeling of being one with that group of people that people need. The church should be doing this. I’m not trying to push me into the church, you should understand that’s important for me in my understanding.

John Cobb: When I was in the army, one night I said, “Kneel beside my bed.” And the whole room just simply itself felt like it was filled with love and acceptance. You’re not just an individual when that kind of thing happens. You are part of something else.

John Cobb: So I’m just saying you could call them psychedelic experiences, if you want, they don’t have many of the characteristics that people describe as psychedelic, but they are experiences of a different possibility that is still a perfectly human possibility.

John Cobb: There is a woman by the name of [unclear Thandeka 01:13:05]. She’s Afro-American and Bishop Tutu. He gave her the name. And she’s spent a lot of times studying neuroscience and gotten getting acquainted with key people in the field. And she’s created an organization called Love Beyond Belief.

John Cobb: She seems to be able to help. She’s Unitarian, and she has worked with Unitarian churches, which are not the places that I would have thought, which I say most readily, but sometimes it turns out that people who have been putting all their emphasis upon reason and rationality and so forth, other ones who are really ready for something else. She thinks it’s possible to organize a service of worship in such a way that people will really existentially feel loved. And to whatever extent she can do that, I think that will accomplish much of what I’m interested in.

John Cobb: But obviously a number of people in this group, and in almost any group I’m at, have had a completely different experience of a church. That church is a place of judgment and condemnation and guilt and all of that. And that is of course the absolutely opposite of what is needed.

John Cobb: I think the church has great potential for good. It has great potential for evil. It’s like almost everything else. Education has great potentials for good, great potentials for evil. And I think the modern world has tended to bring out the potential for evil in both.

John Cobb: But that doesn’t mean, I think, in the middle ages everything was wonderful. I really think Europe was better off in the middle ages than it has been in modernity. But I’m not interested in going back.


Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition

Other books by John Cobb Jr.

A Christian Natural Theology, Second Edition: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead

Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed

Grace & Responsibility: A Wesleyan Theology for Today

For Our Common Home: Process-Relational Responses to Laudato Si’

About John B. Cobb Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D, is a founding co-director of the Center for Process Studies and Process & Faith. He has held many positions, such as Ingraham Professor of Theology at the School of Theology at Claremont, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard Divinity, Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; For the Common Good. Co-winner of Grawemeyer Award of Ideas Improving World Order.