Can Hallucinogens Help with End-of-Life Anxiety?

One psychiatrist studies how psilocybin may ease fears about death

November 23, 2014

Image:Tony Wyatt

Via:Flickr Creative Commons

At the risk of stating the obvious, we’re all going to die. As that event creeps closer, the reality of that situation has an often-unsettling effect on people. Sadness and shock can soon turn into debilitating anxiety and depression. Faced with one of life’s great uncertainties, how do we cope?

Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist and researcher at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, believes he has an answer: hallucinogens. He has been studying how psilocybin — the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms - can reduce death anxiety for end-stage cancer patients. His results, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, show that giving psilocybin to terminally ill people may help patients anxiety and depression about the end of end of life.

Grob details one experience with a patient:

There was one woman, this was her first experience ever with a hallucinogen. She was around 50 years old. She had a great deal of anxiety. Had been isolating herself from friends. Had kind of retreated from the world waiting to die and was just in a psychologically very disturbed state.

Grob says he administered the psilocybin but - unlike most other study subjects - the woman didn’t respond for the first few hours. Grob asked his assistant for more stimulating music, and soon after, tears were streaming down the patient’s face. According to Grob,

For her it was a very very healing experience. Afterwards her anxiety appeared much less. She had previously before the study been on an antidepressant, which for the purposes of the study she had agreed to go off of, but fully expecting to start taking it as soon as her treatment was over with us. But afterwards she found no need to go back on the antidepressant. It really seemed to re-equilibrate her mood.

In the end, Grob says his study has changed how he thinks about his own death.

Having been with my subjects and seen their courage was very heartening to me. And I would say, “Take heart,” that death need not be an overwhelming existential nightmare. But even in the final moments there might still be a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose and a sense of moving forward, albeit moving into the unknown, but still a sense of moving forward.