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Novel approaches to depression are more critical than ever: Q&A with Dr. Charles Raison

By Alison Rowe, Director of Strategic Communications

Depression is the leading cause of disability around the world with more than 260 million people suffering from the condition that disproportionately affects females and people of two or more races. During the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety increased significantly, creating a world-wide mental health crisis.

Charles L. Raison, MD, the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Human Ecology’s Mary Sue and Mike Shannon Distinguished Chair for Healthy Minds, Children and Families, says studying new potential pathways to enhanced well-being are more critical than ever.

Here, Dr. Raison highlights key findings from his latest research paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Q: Why are new or unconventional approaches needed to make progress in enhancing wellbeing?

A: More than 50% of people with depression do not fully respond to traditional medications, leaving them vulnerable to a worsening of their condition, an impaired ability to function and an increased risk of suicide, which is a leading cause of death in young adults. It is very difficult for people to thrive when they are in a depressed state. Depression does not just impact individuals, but also families, organizations and communities connected to each person who is suffering. The cumulative impact of depression on our world is staggering. To improve wellbeing, individually and collectively, we must effectively address the persistent problem of depression.

Q: Why are you studying psychedelics?

A:  There is tremendous potential to explore. I’ve been studying the potential of a psychedelic compound called psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to treat major depressive disorder. It is showing great promise for those who do not respond to traditional treatments for depression (including medications) as well as for those who are receiving traditional treatments. I believe that in the next five years the Food & Drug Administration will approve the use of some psychedelic compounds. It’s important to study the potential benefits and potential harms now, so that best practices and protocols can be developed to ensure safe, effective therapies for those most likely to benefit from them.

Q: What are the key findings from your latest published paper about the self-reported effects of psychedelic use on depression, anxiety and well-being?

A: Our survey-based study involving 2,510 adults suggests that psychedelic use provides mental health benefits, which provides support for the finding of antidepressant effects of psilocybin in clinical trials. In the vast majority of participants in our survey, psychedelic use was associated with significant improvements in depressive and anxious symptoms and with increased emotional wellbeing. However, 13% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. The full paper, published by the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, is available online with free, open access for anyone who wishes to read it.

Q: What other novel approaches to enhancing well-being are you exploring?

A: I’m also looking at the use of heat to treat depression, the relationship between inflammation and depression and how compassion meditation might help treat it. I’m also interested in the role of consciousness and memory in healing and improving wellbeing.

Q: How does your research connect to the mission of the School of Human Ecology?

A: The effects of depression, addiction and stress intersect with so many of the topics central to human ecology, from the well-being of individuals, parents and families, to the need for equitable access to resources. Above all, we must continue to be bold, innovative, and relentless in our pursuit of knowledge that helps to enhance the human experience.

Dr. Charles Raison is internationally recognized for his studies examining novel mechanisms involved in the development and treatment of major depression and other stress-related emotional and physical conditions, as well as for his work examining the physical and behavioral effects of compassion training. An outspoken advocate and educator, he serves as the mental health expert on CNN.com and has published and appeared in a broad range of media. The recipient of several teaching awards, Dr. Raison was named one of the world’s most influential researchers by Web of Science for the decade of 2010-2019.

Learn more about Dr. Raison and his work at the School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.