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Psychedelics might be the next big thing in mental health care, experts say

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Health care workers are experiencing a mental health crisis. The pandemic has left many of them exhausted, depressed and burned out. Now, a researcher at the University of Washington thinks he has an answer - psilocybin. That's the compound that puts the magic in magic mushrooms. From member station KUOW in Seattle, reporter Eilis O'Neill has the story.

EILIS O'NEILL, BYLINE: Health care workers haven't had a chance to process the trauma and grief of the past few years. That's according to Tony Back, an oncologist at the University of Washington.

TONY BACK: Doctors and nurses just kind of turn themselves off. And it turns out when you do that and you do it enough, you start to feel numb, and then you can't stop feeling numb. You feel like a zombie.

O'NEILL: Many health care workers are in the clinical range for depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

BACK: In the long term, it can mean that you're just really disconnected from everything.

O'NEILL: One ongoing national survey asks health care workers if they're having thoughts of self-harm or that life is not worth living. One out of every four says yes. Back thinks psilocybin could help. So he launched a study to give it to burned out health care workers.

BACK: One of the things that psilocybin does, it allows you to just feel those feelings because it kind of releases that top-down control that your brain can have on your emotions.

O'NEILL: Which can help with the numbness and depression.

BACK: You realize you can feel all of them and it actually won't destroy you.

O'NEILL: Back's study is small, only 30 people, but he hopes the effects will be large. Only half of the participants will get psilocybin during the study. The other half will get a placebo. But people generally know if they've taken a psychedelic. Back says he got the idea for this study because of previous research, looking at psilocybin to treat the anxiety and depression that can follow a cancer diagnosis. One of the people who tried psilocybin for that study was Back's patient, Kerry Pappas.

KERRY PAPPAS: I have a thing for trees.

O'NEILL: I met Pappas in a drippy forested park north of Seattle.

PAPPAS: I just walk and walk and walk through the trees.

O'NEILL: Pappas is a retired nurse practitioner. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013.

PAPPAS: It kind of started taking over my life.

O'NEILL: At the time, Pappas was living in Texas, but her family wanted to move across the country to the Seattle area.

PAPPAS: I couldn't move forward because this was a devastating diagnosis that I may not come out of.

O'NEILL: Pappas says she couldn't act. She felt stuck. So she enrolled in a study that treated her fear of death with psilocybin. She had a few psychotherapy sessions to prepare, and then when she took the drug, two therapists sat and talked with her to guide her experience. During her trip, she describes finding herself in an ancient environment where men with pickaxes were chopping up huge boulders.

PAPPAS: And then all of a sudden, out of the rocks came a jewel. And it represented myself. And in the meantime, I'm getting a loud, booming voice, I'll call it. It was saying right here, right now, over and over and over and over again.

O'NEILL: Pappas says that experience helped unstick her and teach her to live in the moment instead of fearing her death. She was able to make that cross-country move with her family. Researchers warn that just taking psychedelics on your own doesn't solve depression. It's only been shown to help in conjunction with therapy. They're still trying to figure out exactly how it works.

FRED BARRETT: But, well, if it works, then it works, you know?

O'NEILL: Fred Barrett is a psychiatry professor and psychedelics researcher at Johns Hopkins University. He says psilocybin can feel like the next big thing in mental health care, but it's only been rigorously tested on a few hundred people.

BARRETT: What is pushing psychedelics forward despite those numbers are really the enormous effect sizes, especially in the treatment of mood disorders such as major depressive disorder.

O'NEILL: Barrett says, those effects seem to endure for months or even years after the treatment.

BARRETT: It's not necessarily all the wild and confusing things that can occur during a psychedelic experience that lead to therapeutic outcomes but personal insights that are gained in that environment.

O'NEILL: And those insights, Barrett says, are essentially what end up being the medicine. For NPR News, I'm Eilis O'Neill in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.