Inspired by Alan Bissett's play about Syd Barrett, One Thinks of It All as a DreamTalking Heads reporter Matt Shields explores the relationship between drugs and mental health, asking whether we will ever know the extent to which Barrett's drug use was the cause of his mental health issues and discussing different perspectives on how various drugs affect our mental wellbeing. 

Alan Bissett’s One Thinks of It All as a Dream explores the life of original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, as he changed from a young budding musician at the helm of pop stardom, to the bewildered character narrated through much of Pink Floyd’s work after his departure. At some point during his time with the band, Barrett’s mental health began to deteriorate to the point where he became nearly unrecognisable, a process illustrated in Bissett’s play.

Some believe it could have originated from the trauma of losing his father to cancer just before his 16th birthday. Others feel that it was due to the pressures of being in the public eye, something Syd was said to have found incredibly stressful, so much so that he quit the business in the 1970s and became widely characterised as a recluse. Some, however, believed that Syd’s issues with mental health primarily stemmed from his frequent ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs

Nobody knows for sure, and it is possible that it was a combination of all these factors, but band members and relatives have claimed that Syd’s drug use did become an issue.  Fellow artist Duggie Fields, who shared an apartment with Barrett in the late 1960s, described it as ‘the last key to unlocking Syd’s door’. Barrett’s transformation from a happy extrovert to a depressed introvert was gradual, though there does seem to have been a major tipping point, with many friends, such as former Pink Floyd bandmate Richard Wright, telling stories of how Syd became ‘a completely different person’ after a drug-fuelled long weekend away. While no one remembers the exact date of this particular weekend for sure, people have since referred to it as the ‘lost weekend’.

As Syd’s drug use became more prominent, so did his erratic behaviour and his issues with mental health. Stories portrayed in One Thinks of it All as a Dream – such as Syd applying an entire tub of Brylcreem before a performance, which the stage lighting caused to melt down his face as the band performed – are often perceived to demonstrate his increasing struggles to cope with daily life and regular activities.

Drugs and mental health have a strained relationship. The National Bureau of Economic Research notes that many people suffering from mental health issues often use substances as a crutch for their issues, despite the fact that it does not resolve their problem, only masks its effects. It states that: ‘The most common issue connecting mental illness and substance abuse is the intention of patients to medicate the mental health symptoms that they find disruptive or uncomfortable by using alcohol and drugs.’

The Calm Clinic warns that it is not just illegal substances which can trigger mental health symptoms, and research has shown that everyday stimulants, such as nicotine and caffeine, can have a negative impact on anxiety sufferers: ‘Studies have shown time and time again that the idea that smoking reduces anxiety is a myth. Many people smoke in order to cope with life, but studies have shown that smoking actually increases anxiety – it simply does so after the cigarette's effects have worn off.’

Alcohol is another legal substance commonly used in day to day life, but unfortunately people who experience mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety attacks, can often turn to alcohol as a short term solution. Drinkaware, a UK-wide alcohol education charity, notes that: ‘People who experience anxiety or depression are twice as likely to be heavy or problem drinkers.’ Alcohol, despite being a depressant, can often elevate mood and mute symptoms of anxiety in the short term. However, people who self-medicate with this form of treatment can get trapped in a vicious cycle and end up with two issues instead of one.

Alcohol can have negative consequences for people suffering from anxiety and depression, as many will know, with symptoms often becoming worse after a big night out. There is also evidence that alcohol abuse can sometimes be the root cause of depression, in addition to the physical damage it can do to your body. Drinkaware say that: ‘While a glass of wine after a hard day might help you relax, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. This is because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health.’

Many doctors prescribe antidepressants to combat a variety of mental health issues, which can have good results. Mental Health Daily states that: ‘A considerable number of people get benefit from antidepressant medication and without them, they wouldn’t be able to hold down a job or maintain a social life.’ However, it also says that, in many patients, the body adapts to these drugs over time, and goes on to say that people taking the medication can become psychologically and physically dependant on them. This is just one of the potential side effects alongside dry mouth, weight gain and loss of libido.

While regularly prescribed to patients with mental health issues, some experts, such as Professor Peter Gotzsche disagree with their benefits. Gotzche believes, somewhat controversially, that long term use of psychotropic drugs, including anti-depressants, is ‘immensely harmful’, while other experts argue over the benefits of the drugs, considering their negative side effects for some patients and their ability to cover up an underlying issue within the psyche.

In an piece for The Guardian, Gotzche claims: ‘The problem is that many of these drugs simply do not work as people suppose. The main effect of antidepressants is not the reduction of depressive symptoms. They are no better than placebo for mild depression, only slightly better for moderate depression, and benefit only one out of 10 with severe depression. In around half of all patients, they cause sexual disturbances. The symptoms include decreased libido, delayed orgasm or ejaculation, no orgasm or ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. Studies in both humans and animals suggest that these effects may persist long after the drug has been discontinued.’

However, others such as Allan Young, Professor of Psychological Medicine at Kings College London, who has struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety himself, provide a counterpoint. Young said that he found ‘a combination of medication and therapy’ effective in his treatment, stating that: ‘Depression is such a huge category of illness – there are multiple types, and each type responds differently.’ Ian Anderson, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester, agrees, stating that: ‘Antidepressants are part of a doctor's toolbox, though probably most useful for the most depressed; some people don't take to talking therapies; it's not an either/or situation.’

Barrett’s drug of choice was LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a strong hallucinogen, particularly popular in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The drug has been linked to the initiation of previously unnoticed or latent mental health issues. LSD and similar drugs cause altered perspectives on reality and visual hallucinations, which may reoccur even after the drug is out of the system and are linked with serious and severe mental health implications. The uncertainty and confusion caused by long term effects can cause extreme distress, anxiety and psychosis, according to drug information charity Frank: ‘LSD could have serious, longer-term implications for somebody who has a history of mental health problems. It may also be responsible for setting off a mental health problem that had previously gone unnoticed.’

However, this is in contrast to the study released earlier this year in the Psychological Medicine Journal, which found that the ingestion of psychedelic drugs can ‘bring on psychosis like symptoms – yet improve psychological wellbeing in the mid to long term’. The study was undertaken with 20 volunteers, who were each given a 75 microgram dosage of LSD intravenously. They were then put through a series of tests, which were repeated a fortnight later. In this study: ‘Increased optimism and trait openness were observed two weeks after LSD and there were no changes in delusional thinking.’

It will never be known whether Barrett’s drug consumption was the root cause of his deterioration in mental health, however it almost certainly played a part. Julian Palacios, author of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe, believes there was a long list of ‘LSD-aided psychotic breakdowns’ during Barrett’s era in the music industry, including Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Chris ‘Ace’ Kefford of The Move, who ‘spent decades recovering in mental homes’ after overdosing on the drug.

It is only in recent years that people have started talking more frequently and openly about mental health and the trials and tribulations associated with it, meaning that Barrett and others from his generation were never formally diagnosed as having mental health issues, let alone given adequate treatment. 

But unfortunately causes, coping strategies and things to avoid are often still not being given enough attention and priority. NHS waiting times for effective treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are between three and six months, while private sessions cost from £60 to £100 an hour. Though you may not be aware of it, there are other ways to help you cope with issues causing suffering. 

You can find a range of help, resources and advice on the Getting Help page on the Mental Health Foundation website. 

by Matt Shields