A segment on a recent episode of HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel begins with former NHL player Daniel Carcillo describing his plan to kill himself. He’s one of four athletes in the episode who after retiring from full-contact sports had been both physically and mentally traumatized by the long-term effects of repeated concussions, and has now found relief with psychedelics.
Carcillo, former NFL player Kerry Rhodes, and former UFC fighters Ian McCall and Dean Lister are part of a growing movement of people using plant medicines like ayahuasca and magic mushrooms to help heal post-traumatic stress disorder and the symptoms of brain trauma.
A Last Resort For Chronic Concussions And Mental Health
On the outside, it seemed like Carcillo, a two-time Stanley Cup winner had it all: a wife and children, a comfortable home, and a successful career in the world’s premiere professional hockey league. But truthfully, Carcillo—whose on-ice reputation earned him the nickname “car bomb”—told correspondent David Scott he’d never felt more dead inside.
Depression is just one of multiple symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition of the brain that is associated with repeated blows to the head. Other symptoms include memory loss, confusion, personality changes, and erratic behavior. A definitive diagnosis can only be made in an autopsy, but a 2017 study showed CTE was found in 99 percent of former NFL players and 91 percent of college football players studied.
Diagnosed with seven concussions throughout his 12-year professional hockey career Carcillo says he likely experienced “hundreds more,” and went down multiple avenues trying to improve his mental health. After trying psychotherapy and different SSRIs, he opted for something outside Western medicine’s realm of treatment: ayahuasca, a South American brew revered by Indigenous cultures as a powerful medicine and containing the psychedelic compound N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.
“I’m just trying to look for more peace of mind, less suffering,” he says to the cameras from the Peruvian jungle before attending the ceremony. Four hours later, he emerges feeling changed, and calls it “the most amazing experience” of his life.
Months later when HBO’s production team visits Carcillo, he says he’s experiencing “little to no depression and anxiety,” while symptoms including slurred speech, headaches, head pressure, memory issues, concentration, and insomnia—are all completely gone.
“I didn’t see him smile for years,” says his wife, Ela. With her husband still symptom-free after five months, she asks Scott, “how can you not believe this stuff works?”
Clinical Research Supports Anecdotal Evidence
While the results of Carcillo’s experience are truly astonishing, Scott says it’s the way these experiences pair up with existing clinical research that truly makes the story.
“Athletes started emerging as potential patients who could benefit from these therapies,” he says by phone from the Bronx. “Their experience lines up with emerging science. For treatment-resistance depression and PTSD, these drugs can provide relief for a lot of people. Maybe not for everyone, and maybe it’s not going to fix everything, but better is better, and these guys hadn’t found better in anything else.”
What’s more, Scott suggests that had the federal government not shut down psychedelic research, which was in full swing before the war on drugs began, generations of people suffering from depression, addiction, and trauma “could have been helped.”
The segment directed by Jordan Kronick also features psychedelic researcher Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris of the Imperial College London. He says a single dose of psilocybin has been shown to produce enduring results in patients suffering from a multitude of conditions that “run the gamut,” from depression and anxiety to obsessive compulsive disorder and more.
When former NFL player Rhodes is featured, he gets emotional when recalling his first ayahuasca ceremony in Costa Rica. Like Carcillo, Rhodes says the experience changed him, eliminating his headaches and pain, bringing back his memory, and even removing his fear around CTE, leading to huge improvements in quality of life.
“I hear stories like that a lot, but I’m not surprised because that’s how these drugs have been used for thousands of years,” says Rick Doblin, the founder of the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. Doblin describes what happened in America after the U.S. government shut down psychedelic research as “an incredible exercise in cultural amnesia,” and advocates for increased study of psychedelics through his organization.
Underground Group Ceremonies Lead To Profound Change In Former MMA Stars
McCall fought in the UFC and other professional MMA leagues for 15 years before finally tapping out. Injury after injury had left him snorting opiate painkillers including fentanyl on a regular basis, turning him into a self-described “monster.” Experimenting with psychedelics, he says, helped cure him of his addiction and suicidal thoughts.
Today, he is committed to helping improve the mental health of other former fighters by showing them how life-altering regular group experiences with psychedelic medicines can be.
“Fighters are good people,” McCall says, “but they’re tormented.” The Real Sports segment takes viewers inside a private ceremony in which a group of fighters including former grappler and UFC star Lister are guided through a psilocybin trip by a shaman.
Like any longtime mixed martial artist, Lister has experienced his fair share of head trauma, and describes the symptoms associated with repeated concussions like being “stuck in a prison cell in your own mind.” Before taking five grams of mushrooms (with McCall seated to his right), Lister was struggling with alcoholism, drinking up to 20 beers a day and taking Xanax every night.
During the deep journey (the only kind afforded to anyone who consumes five grams, or a ‘hero’s dose,’ at one time) Lester experiences the kind of near-death hallucination only psychedelic travellers will be familiar with, and says to himself, “If I wake up, I’m going to do things different.” Since the experience, he’s steered clear of all drugs and alcohol.
“It’s so common with psychedelics, that sense of something really serious happening, maybe even death,” says Carhart-Harris. “The way it turns around, where people realize, ‘oh, I’m not actually dying’—that’s where the shift happens. It’s like survivor euphoria: ‘oh, I do have that second chance.’”