Can psychedelic drugs help ease the fear of death?

Patients in a clinical trial attempt to ease their fears and depression using psychedelic drugs

Patients without much longer to live are finding mental (and perhaps even spiritual) relief in an unlikely source — magic mushrooms.

Anthony Bossis, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University, has been researching whether the hallucinogen psilocybin, a chemical compound found in mushrooms, could relieve the anxiety of patients with life-threatening illnesses.

His team’s clinical trial was small, with only 29 participants, but the reported impacts were dramatic. Between 60 to 80 per cent of participants with depression or a sense of hopelessness were in better spirits nearly 5 years later, and almost all attributed the change to the drug.

“I began having thoughts about my daughters, and how amazing they are. And I started to feel love. The rest of this experience was suffused with love all around me,” said Dinah Bazer, about her time in the trial.

“My family loves me, it’s not just that I love them, they love me and I can feel that love.”

Psychedelic drugs have had a long, difficult history in academic circles, with the research hard to perform and the material hard to gather. In both Canada and the U.S., psilocybin is a government controlled substance — possession and distribution are illegal.

But in recent decades, Canada and the U.S. have become more open to allowing researchers to perform small clinical trials to test psilocybin.

Bossis’s team is hardly the only one performing research into the effects of hallucinogens on the mind. In 2009, Roland Griffiths, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at John Hopkins University, released a paper about “mystical-type experiences” that could be prompted by psilocybin.

The article noted that “67 per cent of the volunteers rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life.”

His work prompted Bossis, and other researchers at NYU, to look into what effect the compound might have on anxiety or depression.

Tapestry talked to Bossis in 2015, as they were analyzing data gathered in the prior five years. It was clear to Bossis, even before they published their conclusions a year later, that was he was witnessing something remarkable.

“[Patients] come in with a fear of death, a fear of cancer, a fear of distress, a fear of change, fear of future suffering, a fear of pain, and leave, eight hours later, and the next day report feeling incredibly different,” said Bossis.

As for whether there’s something more mystical at the heart of these experiences, Bossis told both Tapestry and the New Yorker, which chronicled in detail the NYU team’s effort, the same thing: “It’s above my pay grade.”

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