A psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms could “revolutionise care homes” by helping people get over their fear of dying, an expert has said.
Psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical in magic mushrooms, is being increasingly investigated as a form of therapy to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Mounting evidence has shown it can help people for whom other forms of medication and therapy fail. It has also been shown to help people face their fear of death.
In Canada, like in the UK, psilocybin is illegal. But, unlike in Britain, Canada’s health authorities have issued an exemption to allow end of life patients to apply for the drug to improve their quality of life.
Dr David Luke, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Greenwich, believes the UK should follow this example and put a caveat in the current law to allow the drug to be used as therapy in palliative care.
Speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival, he said: “I think that there is a good argument, and it’s building, for psychedelic palliative care homes.”
He said they “do seem to be, based on the initial data, beneficial in helping people deal with end of life existential fear and anxiety”.
Changes to current practice would be minimal
Speaking after the talk, Dr Luke added: “I think there’s actually a good case for having these palliative care centres and secular treatment first. Instead of rewriting the law, they’ve just put in an extension and that’s been being utilised.”
The changes to current practice would be minimal, the expert said, with staff and facilities needing little additional training or funding.
“You would need a specialist team, you need people who are trained in guiding people through psychedelic experiences, but there’s already training out there and I think people who are already working in palliative care who are therapists would be really well suited to that,” said Dr Luke.
“But you wouldn’t need any particular facilities. You just need a quiet room with some kind of conducive environment, some mood lighting and maybe a view of nature.
“It could revolutionise care homes as well, which are in a bit of a parlous state after the last few years,” he added.
Epiphanic moments and a glimpse into the afterlife following administration of psychedelics is a “very common thing”, the scientist added.
“They get a glimmer of something which reduces their fear of death, and that’s often that maybe death isn’t the end or something like that. It puts things into perspective about their place in the universe and gives them a sense of their eternal nature.”
Chemical makes people ‘feel more open to their death’
Modern data is sparse on the end of life benefits of psilocybin as a treatment, due to it now being illegal in the UK. However, Dr Luke said there is convincing anecdotal evidence to suggest people in palliative care on the treatment, who also get therapy to compliment the drug, live a little bit longer.
“People have less depression and anxiety, they have less fear about dying so they feel better able to die or feel more prepared, they feel more open to their death,” he said.
“I’ve seen people face death with equanimity and do that very well. And other people just really, really fight.
“They have an incurable disease, and they’re desperate to find a cure. They’re just hanging on to this false hope that they’re going to get a cure [which] is going to get discovered before they die, and they’re just fighting it the whole way. You know, they’re in denial.”
On the topic of the drug’s current illegality, Dr Luke believes it needs to be licensed as a medicine before anything can progress, but that he sees the law moving in that direction.
Current data show that there is no physiological harm done by psychedelics, and Dr Luke said the only area of concern is potential psychological toxicity.
“There is still an element that you don’t want to traumatise somebody at the end of their life, but initial studies show that it’s very well tolerated and hugely beneficial to the majority,” he explained.