Univ. of Washington to Test Psilocybin for Healthcare Workers’ Burnout

How’s the new year treating you so far?

2022 marks the second year we’ve grappled with the global pandemic. People everywhere, especially workers in hospitals and clinics, have to deal with increasing stress and burnout on top of the constant threat of becoming infected themselves. Yep, COVID-19 is more than just a physiological crisis; it’s a mental health crisis, too. What if there was a solution to help ease the burden of healthcare workers? Can it be as simple as taking a dose of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms and magic truffles?

That is the question scientists from the University of Washington are hoping to answer. 

Psilocybin to Help Treat Burnout

COVID-19 healthcare workers are suffering from burnout. Researchers say psilocybin might be the solution. (Photo by Nikko Macaspac on Unsplash)

In a new clinical trial, researchers are testing psilocybin paired with talk therapy as a potential cure for symptoms of stress and burnout. Lead scientist Dr. Anthony Back, co-director of the University of Washington’s Centre for Excellence in Palliative Care, told GeekWire that the trial will commence very soon. 

“There’s just a ton of grief from watching all these people die in front of them, who died in a very physically uncomfortable way. There is a lot of moral injury, feeling that they didn’t do enough.

“A lot of them feel really badly that people’s families were not able to be with them because of COVID isolation procedures.”

Beck has also authored a handy manual on COVID-19 interactions for healthcare workers, with a focus on self-care. He noted how much stress clinicians have to endure while treating their patients.

Bigger Than Just Depression

Healthcare workers are under constant pressure to deliver results and keep their cool in the process. Doing this for longer periods can lead to burnout. (Photo by David Matos on Unsplash)

Back also shared how healthcare workers also have to deal with difficult patients, ranging from grumpy to hostile. Most of them are likely unable to accept their diagnosis, or in denial of COVID-19 as a real disease.

“Patients who scream at you and say that you’re lying to them, that COVID is a lie.

“I’ve talked to a number of clinicians who’ve been spit at by patients in the hospital because they’re so angry. And there’s a couple of people who’ve had patients throw bedpans with feces at them.”

Sounds like a lot, right? So why not simply counsel the clinicians for their stress? Though there are lots of studies going on regarding psilocybin as a way to treat depression, the mental pressure cooker is a lot trickier than sadness. There are other signs at play such as PTSD, severe anxiety, and burnout. Symptoms include:

  • Feelings of failure and self-doubt
  • A sense of every day being a “bad day”
  • Exhaustion that doesn’t end, not even after a night’s rest
  • Tasks have piled up and become overwhelming; and
  • Feeling like nothing you do is appreciated.

“In a way, it’s bigger than just depression. There’s a kind of disillusionment and reckoning going on.”

The Psilocybin Blind Test

For the first time ever, psilocybin will be tested exclusively on healthcare workers on a massive scale. (Photo by Christopher Ott on Unsplash)

According to Back, the trial is the first to try psilocybin on healthcare workers on a major scale — partnering with Cybin, a Toronto-based psychedelics company. For starters, the team will gather 30 clinicians with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and existential distress. Before they get a dose of psilocybin, the healthcare workers will first go through a psychotherapy stage (aka “talk therapy”)

After two sessions of talk therapy, a single dose of psilocybin will be given to 15 participants. The other 15 will take a placebo or a so-called “fake dose”. Once all 30 participants have taken their doses, real or otherwise, they will be given three “integration” sessions as a follow up.

So what’s next? Four weeks after their doses, the participants will be tested for depression and anxiety, along with symptoms of burnout, PTSD, and existential distress. At this point all of them will be “unblinded” or told which doses were real or not. Those in the placebo group will then get to experience psilocybin — for real this time.

Psilocybin as Brain Reset

Psilocybin has been proven to rewire the way your mind works — literally. (Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash)

Back told GeekWire:

“Psychedelics kind of give your brain a kind of reset. So that the patterns of thinking, the ruminative cycle that goes round and round in your head, psychedelics disrupt that and give people a chance to kind of see what it’s like without that.

“People can then take insights from the experience and ask, ‘how am I going to move into the future?’”

FDA Approval for a New Psilocybin-Based Drug

Thanks to speedy FDA approval, the study is now free to make a new psilocybin-based drug to treat burnout. (via Creative Commons)

The researchers entered 2022 with an early triumph: a big thumbs-up from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to go full blast with their study. The end goal would be for Cybin to create a whole new drug based on psilocybin — a trial version for now — to help treat burnout and stress quickly. Time is of the essence, after all, for healthcare workers dealing with COVID-19 patients in the hospital. The clarity of mind of our healthcare workers is of the utmost importance — they’re the ones with the medical skills! 

The study will also serve as a basis for another Cybin trial. This one will deal with making a modified form of psilocybin with “wildly different effects”. What could it be?! We expect to hear more about it in the coming months…

Exciting Days Ahead for Psilocybin Research

Even tough beasts need to take it easy once in a while! (Photo by Yuvraj Shivhare on Unsplash)

Chinese astrology marks 2022 as the Year of the Water Tiger, signalling a spirit of boldness, power, and a refusal to take crises face down. It’s an apt metaphor for the heroes — our COVID-19 healthcare workers — who have had to deal with stress, PTSD, and pressure in tough times. Now, it’s time for them to take a step back, regain their strength, and reset their brains with the help of a secret weapon we all know and love as psilocybin. Thanks to this new study from the University of Washington, we’ll be one step closer towards a cure for burnout. And this won’t just benefit clinicians, but all folks yearning for relief.

Seems like shrooms and magic truffles are coming to the rescue once again! 

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