A different “magic” from magic mushrooms? Mystical experiences ease end-of-life distress
Research exploring the medicinal value of psychedelic drugs like LSD (commonly known as “acid”) and psilocybin (a natural compound found in “magic” mushrooms) is making a comeback and the results are encouraging. Several new studies indicate that small doses of psychedelic drugs, administered under the supervision of medical and mental health professionals, can effectively treat some psychological conditions, including end-of-life distress in patients with terminal cancer. Many researchers and clinicians are hoping that ongoing research will result in psychedelic drugs someday becoming a part of accepted medical practice.
How might psychedelic drugs help people?
Psychedelic drugs have a very long history of use in certain healing and spiritual practices and were an area of active research until halted under the Nixon administration in 1970. Several labs across the country are now conducting highly controlled experiments testing the hypothesis that psychedelic drugs can reduce end-of-life distress in individuals with advanced stage cancer diagnoses. According to Stephen Ross, MD, Associate Professor and Director of Addiction Psychiatry at NYU Medical Center, and expert in the therapeutic application of psychedelic drugs, individuals with terminal illnesses like cancer can experience severe emotional or spiritual distress characterized by the inability to find hope, love, meaning, value, strength and connection. This distress negatively affects treatment and can greatly add to the overall suffering from the physical symptoms associated with cancer.
At CASAColumbia’s Addiction Speaker Series, Dr. Ross shared important results of his current research with the Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Project at NYU. Dr. Ross and his team tested if a small dose of psilocybin (administered under careful medical and psychotherapeutic supervision) could reduce anxiety, depression and emotional distress in individuals with advanced stage cancer diagnoses. Participants in the study were carefully screened for any unstable physical or psychological conditions and none of the participants experienced lasting side effects.
Dr. Ross reported results showing “dramatic changes in anxiety, depression, and orientation toward death.” He also shared that “a single dose effect may last as long as eight months.” To put that in perspective, current medication treatment for anxiety and depression require daily doses.
Although we don’t know how these drugs work to relieve symptoms, Dr. Ross suggests that the benefit may stem from the fact that the drug induces a “mystical experience” in patients, which is characterized by:
- Feelings of unity or oneness with all things
- Connection with nature
- Sense of sacredness
- Inner peace
The results of Dr. Ross’ study indicate that individuals with more intense mystical experiences had greater reduction in distress. On one account, Dr. Ross described the mystical experience of a study participant: “he said he saw himself in front of the hospital…he was then surrounded by a ring of his family and saw a cloud of black smoke leave his body.” After this experience, the patient felt like all of his fear had been removed, Dr. Ross explained.
So, where do we go from here?
Research on the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs dates back to the discovery of the hallucinogenic properties of LSD in 1943. While early research was promising, a rise in recreational use alarmed the U.S. government. In 1970, the Drug Enforcement Administration classified psychedelic drugs as Schedule I (indicating “no current medical use” and “high abuse potential”) to protect people from their unpredictable and dangerous nature. This decision also placed marijuana in Schedule I which creates a continued stumbling block for research on its potential medical benefit – and is now an area of intense advocacy for rescheduling this drug.
Because of the classification, the future of research on psychedelic drugs is complicated. Schedule I drugs are highly regulated and very difficult to obtain for research purposes, which is why early research stopped. But recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began approving the use of psychedelic drugs in well-controlled studies. However, the situation is not ideal; because these drugs are Schedule I the federal government does not fund its research, and only a few labs have the experienced scientists who can obtain other sources of financial support.
While there is no talk of re-classifying psychedelic drugs, mounting research is inherently challenging the classification. But, we need to consider that if the drugs are re-classified, recreational use may increase and such use is still considered risky and potentially harmful.
CASAColumbia supports the use of any medications that have undergone the FDA’s comprehensive drug approval process and we encourage research in this area to determine innovative, evidence-based treatments for behavioral health disorders.
Nicole Piazza is a Research Assistant at CASAColumbia