Psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, has been showing promise as a method for the psychological treatment of cancer patients according to researchers. As the fight against cancer pushes forward with incredible progress, the psychological side of the battle has lagged behind. Antisocial behavior, depression, and other psychological problems plague those with cancer. Psilocybin may provide a channel by which patients can face the arduous and oftentimes debilitating treatments.
A recently published chapter in “Psychological Aspects of Cancer: A Guide to Emotional and Psychological Consequences of Cancer, Their Causes, and Their Management”, reviews the potential of the psychoactive drug, psilocybin. The chapter addresses the psychological and spiritual distress that often accompanies a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, and alleviating that distress.
The chapter entitled “Use of the Classic Hallucinogen Psilocybin for Treatment of Existential Distress Associated With Cancer” was co-written by Dr. Anthony P. Bossis, psychiatrist and New York University Investigator with the Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study at the BluestoneCenter for Clinical Research.
“Mystical or peak consciousness states in cancer patients have been associated with a number of benefits including improved psychological, spiritual, and existential well-being,” says Bossis.
According to NYU reports, Psilocybin (a serotonergic psychoactive agent) is a naturally occurring and active component of many species of mushrooms. It is rapidly metabolized to psilocin, a highly potent activator of serotonin receptors. In addition to receiving the psilocybin compound, patients enrolled in the study also receive psychological preparation prior to the psilocybin dosing, followed by a brief series of integrative psychotherapeutic sessions. Research shows the hallucinogen treatment model with psilocybin has been known to induce a mystical or spiritual experience, and is a unique therapeutic approach to reduce the anxiety of terminal cancer patients.
Research reported by Johns Hopkins University also has revealed positive effects attributed to the use of psychedelic drugs. Severe obsessive-compulsive disorder patients have shown a demonstrable improvement in their symptoms after being subject to psilocybin treatment. Ketamine, also known as Special K on the streets, can be a sort of fast-acting anti-depressant. Johns Hopkins also warns, however, that the promising results found in these studies are done in controlled settings, and self-prescribed, illegal street-drugs like mushrooms present some serious potential dangers. These dangers come from the inability to ensure purity and not having the proper environment to control potential bad situations caused by the drugs.
Since the 1980s, hallucinogenic drugs have been classified as Schedule 1 in the United States. Schedule 1 drugs are supposed to be so identified if they meet three standards: no accepted medical use, inability to use safely, and having a high potential for abuse. In 1990, however, psychotropic drugs like those found in Special K or Ecstasy, were approved for use in medical studies.
Real publicly accessible data on the effects and potential benefits of psilocybin is limited. There may be some useful perspectives to be gained by drawing from the actual experiences of individuals who have used.
Consider the observations of “Matthew” , an advocate for the legal use of mushrooms and other psychedelics. He consented to an interview with The Hammill Post on conditions of anonymity. Matthew has gone through what he describes as life-altering experience with mushrooms. He agreed to discuss his own experience and how he considers his life consequently changed life for the better.
“The best way to describe it is it makes your brain soft,” Matthew says about his experience. “Your mindset going into it influences the direction your mind goes.”
For Matthew, an experiment turned into a therapy session as the psilocybin he had ingested worked its way through his system. Though much of his experiment was motivated by curiosity, his mind took him on a journey to places he did not expect.
“So I’m with [a friend]… we were talking about how it was going and how I was feeling,” Matthew says, describing his “coming down”, a point often cited by those familiar with the drug as the point after the initial high.
This time period is associated with more introspective and potentially even negative thoughts. As many users describe, it is best to have an anchor—someone to “hold the balloon string”—to weather this part of the psychotropic experience. Though Matthew had started his trip with others who were sharing in the experience, he had left them and found himself with a friend he describes as an exceptionally grounded individual. This same friend had a familiarity with methods of psychological treatment.
For Matthew, this was fortunate. He had already started going from a positive psychedelic experience to foundering in some serious questions about his life and his choices. As he describes it, the theme of his thoughts was failure: failed love life, stalled education, and wasting of his potential. Instead of coming to a potentially disastrous “bad trip”, he had his own surrogate therapist to keep him from going too far.
“We were discussing that, in controlled dosages, in the right environment with a psychologist, this drug would be very useful in psychotherapy,” he says. In his opinion, “the reason psychotherapy doesn’t work at times is people don’t want to talk about anything. They set up barriers that prevent the therapist from helping them. [Psilocybin] takes a f—ing sledgehammer to that.”
For Matthew, there was no option but to face the things that were bothering him. These were things that Matthew had buried: thoughts he had avoided in order to keep some false sense of positivity in his life, in spite of the many shortcomings he admitted to having.
The experience seems to have forced Matthew to face down his fears. After his experience, he took a job opportunity he had been waffling on for several weeks. He traveled to another part of the country and had a great work experience doing it. He came back with a renewed sense of confidence. His grades in college improved dramatically, even in his worst subjects. His focus was increased.
While Matthew does not attribute psilocybin as the reason he became capable to better himself, he describes the drug as his “binoculars”. For Matthew, mushrooms provided a closer look at those distant goals and dreams he had previously resigned to believing were a lost cause. Mushrooms allowed him to regain his sense of direction and self-worth.
Matthew acknowledges that his experience is not one necessarily shared by everyone who gets high on psilocybin. There are those who simply use the drug for recreational purposes and nothing more. Before taking mushrooms, even he did not necessarily think it would be much more than an experience with a drug he had been curious to explore. Nevertheless, his experience seems consistent with studies revealing beneficial clinical potential.
Experiences described by users range from the deeply mystical to the thoroughly introspective. Sometimes the experiences are life-changing. In the right environment, these drugs apparently can be powerful drivers for change.
“Overall, I’d say it averaged out to a positive experience,” Matthew says, in spite of some very intense moments where he nearly lost himself while on psilocybin. “It was hard to deal with, but I came through on top.”