Psychedelics: Beyond the Headlines

The recent headline-grabbing incident involving an off-duty airline pilot who reportedly attempted to shut off the engines of a passenger flight mid-air highlights the importance of research, training and public education on psychedelics. The man’s actions, which could have led to a disastrous crash, reignited a debate about the relationship between mental health and psychedelic substances.

The off-duty pilot is said to have told law enforcement that he had been suffering from depression for six years and was grieving the death of a friend before ingesting mushrooms containing psilocybin, a federally scheduled substance, for the first time. 

Some media reports simplified what might have contributed to the man’s state of mind and actions, focusing only on his statement in federal court documents that he had consumed “magic mushrooms” some 48 hours previously. Reportedly, he also claimed to have not slept for 40 hours prior to the mid-air incident. 

Given the confluence of factors reported thus far, it’s difficult to know what role any one of them — including psychedelics — may have had that day.

What we do know is that the subjective effects of psilocybin (e.g., consciousness-alteration, or “tripping”) usually last only a few hours. After 48 hours the drug will no longer be present in the body. That said, research shows people can experience long-lasting, destabilizing psychological effects after a powerful psychedelic drug experience.

Bob Jesse, an advisor to the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, explained in the New York Times that the psilocybin would have left the man’s system by the time he boarded the flight. However, Jesse said, “a strong transient mental experience, drug or non-drug, could further destabilize someone who’s already unstable or fragile.” He added that, infrequently, even apparently stable and psychologically robust people who take psychedelics can experience negative consequences that last well beyond the hours of acute drug action.

To mitigate these risks, the public — especially potentially vulnerable people — needs access to information about risk management and the importance of set, setting, and integration for any non-microdose experience with psychedelics. This is increasingly important as policy reforms related to psychedelics progress across the U.S. Many people who self-medicate with psychedelics or other drugs may be unwell, feel desperate, or have run out of options, factors that could influence their response to a psychedelic. 

We know some ways to create a safer environment for a psychedelic experience, like having a trained guide, but we are only beginning to understand how psychedelics work in the brain and the factors that may influence people toward a beneficial versus a harmful experience with psychedelics. These questions need more research.

While the potential benefits of psychedelic treatments in clinical trials for a variety of mental health conditions are widely reported, psychedelics may not work for everybody. Psilocybin may affect people’s default mode network, which is one of the possible explanations for why psychedelics may be effective treatments of depression when coupled with therapy. However, more research is needed to understand how these substances work in the brain, said Michael Silver, BCSP’s faculty director and a professor of optometry and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

There is much we are still learning about the science of psychedelics, but we do know that risk reduction and supporting the best outcomes of psychedelic experiences is based on community-based knowledge that has been developed over years, decades, and centuries. That is why the BCSP is committed to combining scientific research with community-based knowledge and practice to ensure the public can access credible, culturally-informed and evidence-based resources on psychedelics, their potential risks and their potential benefits.