A doctor from Seattle is concerned about the level of stress and depression that some of his co-workers are experiencing due to the heavy burden that they have taken on since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Back of Harborview Medical Center will study the affects that psilocybin has on healthcare workers’ mental health. He hopes that the psychedelic drug derived from magic mushrooms will have a positive effect.

"This sense of, 'I'm not able to do enough. I'm not able to do the right thing.' It has just become intense. And they have watched and been with people who have died of COVID. They have expirienced up close this extreme version of physical suffering, and then mental suffering. Because they are there instead of the patients' families," Back said in an interview about the study.

"Nurses right now, and doctors, are leaving the field in droves, and I mean, we're on our way to a public health crisis because providers are leaving and we need to think of something," he added.

Psilocybin for medical conditions has been seen as taboo in the past, but it has recently been accepted as a way to treat patients with cancer, major depressive disorder, alcoholism and other addictive disorders.

According to a 2020 study by Johns Hopkins Medicine on how psilocybin affects adults with major depression, “researchers report that two doses of the psychedelic substance psilocybin, given with supportive psychotherapy, produced rapid and large reductions in depressive symptoms, with most participants showing improvement, and half of study participants achieving remission through the four-week follow-up.” 

Considering its positive results with other medical conditions, Back wants to look deeper into what benefits it could bring, specifically for healthcare workers suffering from the fallout of the pandemic.

Back and a research team are conducting the trial at the University of Washington, where they will treat 30 depressed medical professionals with a dose of synthetic psilocybin, along with psychotherapy.

It will be studied if the combination of the psilocybin and therapy can improve their mental health after dealing with what Back is calling “disillusionment in the medical workforce.”

“People scream at you. They’re telling you you’re lying and that COVID is a hoax, and they’re spitting at you,” Back said.

The result, according to Back, is a medical workforce with what he describes as a moral injury.

“There’s been a deep disillusionment,” he said. 

Data and insights will be collected from interviews and questionnaires to help researchers understand the drug’s effect on the medical workers' mental health. Back beleives the drug can release people from habitual ways of thinking and help them obtain fresh insights.

Back said he has taken psilocybin and wrote about his experience for the Journal of Palliative Medicine. The experience broadened his perspective on end-of-life care, he said.