Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy to Treat Existential and Psychological Distress

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It is well known that individuals faced with a terminal illness often experience significant psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, and existential distress. These symptoms can be debilitating and negatively impact the patient’s quality of life. Even when treatment is sought out, traditional therapies have fallen woefully short, and many patients, along with their families, continue to suffer from these symptoms despite receiving treatment.

The use of psychedelics in the treatment of existential and psychological distress in those with life-threatening illnesses had shown promise in several research studies going back to the 1950s and 1960s. Those studies typically looked at the impact of using LSD on cancer patients and yielded positive results. That came to a screeching halt in 1970 as psychedelics, in general, were deemed “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”, despite the benefits they had shown for several mental health disorders.

It took until 2004 when psychedelic research in cancer patients began again. Although it was a small study, the University of California Los Angeles was the first to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in “magic mushrooms”, in cancer patients. Psilocybin was chosen, in part, as it is a naturally occurring compound that has been a part of ceremonial rituals dating back thousands of years, so was considered extremely safe with minimal negative side effects.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and New York University (NYU) took up the mantle around 2012 to study the efficacy of psilocybin-assisted therapy on existential and psychological distress in cancer patients. Their research has yielded promising results, showing that psilocybin is a safe and effective treatment for easing the depression, anxiety, and fear of dying often associated with a life-threatening illness.

The results from the JHU study showed that, after 6 months, 83% and 79% of the participants significantly reduced anxiety and depression, respectively. Similarly, in the NYU study, after 6.5 months 60%-80% of the participants reported significant reductions in anxiety and depression. Additionally, many patients reported feelings of peace, love, and connectedness during the experience. They also reported a greater sense of acceptance and a reduction in fear of death.

One of the most significant findings of these studies is that the effects of psilocybin appeared to be long-lasting. Many patients reported sustained improvements in psychological distress for several weeks following the administration of just one or two doses of psilocybin with associated psychotherapy. This is particularly noteworthy given that traditional treatments for psychological distress often require ongoing treatment with only 40% reporting clinical reductions in their symptoms.

Results were also recently reported from Sunstone Therapies, a pioneer psychedelic research facility in Rockville, MD. They demonstrated similar results with 80% of the participants reporting a significant reduction in anxiety and depression and 50% in remission. They also recently published a follow up study on these same participants and found that after 18 months and a single dose of psilocybin with associated psychotherapy, fully 64% of the participants reported a significant reduction in depression and, now, 57% were in remission. Sunstone is also conducting the first ever couple’s psychedelic-assisted therapy for those where one of the partners has been given a cancer diagnosis. Although the study results have not yet been published, couples have reported life-changing experiences and deepening relationships with their partner.

The researchers noted that psilocybin is not a cure for cancer. However, they believe that it may be a valuable tool in helping patients cope with the psychological challenges of living with cancer. They also noted that the use of psilocybin in this context requires careful screening, preparation, and monitoring to ensure that it is used safely and appropriately.

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