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Film Preview: Magic Medicine, JW3, Finchley Road

PUBLISHED: 12:54 22 November 2018

a still from the documentary Magic Medicine

a still from the documentary Magic Medicine

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Documentary follows a medical trial exploring whether a magic mushroom trip can reboot the brains of people with chronic depression

Robin Carhart HarrisRobin Carhart Harris

Can hallucinocenic drugs cure depression? That’s the question posed by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London.

Kilburn documentary maker Monty Wates was granted permission to follow three of his volunteers as they took doses of the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms in the hope of healing their chronic condition.

His film Magic Medicine is out now and screens at JW3 on November 26.

Wates followed 45-year-old father of two John, who has been depressed for eight years; Andy, who has tried years of therapy, and Mark, who has had depression all his adult life and tried many treatments from anti-depressants to ECT.

Magic MedicineMagic Medicine

“This is the first ever medical trial in the UK to give psychedelic drugs to people with clinical depression ,” says Wates, who lives just off Shoot Up Hill.

“We did it on the basis that it was not going to be a puff piece but would be honest and true. It was important to film people before they had their first dose to see where they were at baseline. “For a lot of people the first dose had such a profound change on them that they started to think differently.”

Patients were given a brain scan and a detailed questionaire before and after doses to gague the effect on their depression.

The hallucinocenic strand of magic mushrooms - or psilocybin - was created in a laboratory - and administered in a controlled doeses in a comfy room with low, coloured lighting and a psychiatrist and psychologist on hand to monitor progress.

“In a way, I have always wanted to make a film about mental health but wondered how to do it so it wasn’t just totally depressing but really showed what it was like,” says Wates.

“The great thing about this is it makes the subject come alive. I am very lucky in my life not to have experienced depression because I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. Before making the film I had no grip on what it was like. Then I met John, who wouldn’t leave his house for months or answer the door to the postman, and does complicated research which fills up the space in his mind so he can’t think about how worthless he is, or how much he is screwing up his family.

“I am full of admiration for people like Mark who get up every day, do all the things the doctors tell him like gardening and walking the dog even though nothing works.”

Wates doesn’t fully understand how psilocybin works but calls it a process of “re-education”.

“My job was to tell the human story not necessarily to understand the science. The drug seems to unlock the receptor prevalent in depression. You could argue that these drugs have been used for thousands of years in tribal regions as part of a therapeutic process before they became a hedonistic drug.”

The history of using psychoactive substances therapeutically is a checquered one. In the 1960s American psychologist Timothy Leary conducted experiments with LSD and psilocybin when it was legal. And Hampstead psychiatrist R.D Laing took LSD with his patients.

After being sacked from Harvard, Leary became synonymous with America’s countercultural movement, coining phrases such as “turn on tune in an drop out.” The Nixon administration banned all pscyhoactive drugs in 1971.

“Leary went too far in saying everyone should be taking it,” says Wates. “The government were worried about the consequences of people being high all the time and thought it made people more left wing. They banned it for research reasons against the advice of their medical advisers.

“In this country we are quite conservative when it comes to drugs. The media have played their part in demonising them, and while there is a lot to demonise, when they do show promise to help the massive problem of mental health we should take a reasonable line.” Carhart-Harris’ team are cautious about the positive results of the trial, not least because due to limited funds there were only 20 patients.

“They feel they are right but are taking it slowly in case something goes wrong.”

For several weeks after his trip, John felt he had been cured, but his family found it hard to adjust to the change in him.

“After the second dose he felt his depression had gone 100 percent but it was going to be weird for family members that their partner had changed. Coming back into an environment where people were so used to him being depressed ate away at the wellbeing that he felt.”

Andy also reported a big improvement but not a cure.

“He felt better and I wonder if he had another dose or a stronger one he could have cut those ties that held him back.”

Mark remained the same but Wates wonders: “Is he wedded to the idea of his life being like that. He has lived it for so long is he willing to change?

Carhart-Harris is now undertaking further research and America’s powerful FDA has just approved psilocybin as a “breakthrough drug” approving a 400 strong research project in the US and Europe next year.

COMPASS Pathways who are running this large-scale clinical trial for ‘treatment-resistant depression’ describe psilocybin as shaking the brain up “like a snow globe”, rebooting it by deactivating negative connections and creating new ones.

“They fast-tracked it and that does not happen very often,” says Wates, who tried magic mushrooms “once or twice” in his 20s when they were legal.

“That was part of the reason why I instinctively know that there was something intriguing about this. I was lucky in my trip to just have laughter and no bad thoughts. “There are 65 million prescriptions for anti-depressants in the UK, and if one or two doses of psilocybin can cut down on the handful of drugs Mark takes every day, or get just 20 percent off them, it has to be cost effective.”

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