Psychedelic drugs could prove beneficial to terminally ill patients suffering from anxiety and depression. The New York Times’ Lauren Slater outlines researchers’ optimism that such drugs can allay fears of death and dying. Psychedelics are undoubtedly controversial. The stain of the 1960s experimental phase remains with many American physicians, but some believe the drugs can help.
It’s been fifty years since many doctors became enamored with the drugs, known for causing hallucinations and vivid sensory experiences. The use of such psychedelics as LSD was skyrocketing. Slater writes how “psychedelics were embraced by many and used in a host of controversial studies, most famously the psilocybin project run by Timothy Leary.” President Richard Nixon called Leary “the most dangerous man in America.”
Researchers like Charles Grob, psychiatrist at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, believe that drugs should be reconsidered as treatment options. Grob believes that a mystery remains surrounding drugs’ effectiveness against anxiety. “I don’t really have altogether a definitive answer as to why the drug eases the fear of death, but we do know that from time immemorial individuals who have transformative spiritual experiences come to a very different view of themselves and the world around them and thus are able to handle their own deaths differently.”
Psychedelic researcher Oliver Sacks recounts his own tumultuous relationship with the drugs for The New Yorker, describing his abuse of LSD and morning-glory seeds- and their inherent appeal.
He writes: “Many of us find Wordsworthian ‘intimations of immortality’ in nature, art, creative thinking, or religion; some people can reach transcendent states through meditation or similar trance-inducing techniques, or through prayer and spiritual exercises. But drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand. These shortcuts are possible because certain chemicals can directly stimulate complex brain functions.”
The transcendence would eventually help 55 year-old Pam Sakuda with her cancer diagnosis. “Shortly after having a tumor removed from her colon, she heard the doctor’s dreaded words: Stage 4; metastatic. Sakuda was given 6 to 14 months to live. Determined to slow her disease’s insidious course, she ran several miles every day, even during her grueling treatment regimens. By nature upbeat, articulate and dignified, Sakuda — who died in November 2006, outlasting everyone’s expectations by living for four years — was alarmed when anxiety and depression came to claim her after she passed the 14-month mark, her days darkening as she grew closer to her biological demise,” writes Leary.
She would take treatment from Grob. “As her fears intensified, Sakuda learned of a study being conducted by Charles Grob. . . who was administering psilocybin — an active component of magic mushrooms — to end-stage cancer patients to see if it could reduce their fear of death.”
Sakuda is quoted as saying, “I started to cry. . . . Everything was concentrated and came welling up and then . . . it started to dissipate, and I started to look at it differently. . . . I began to realize that all of this negative fear and guilt was such a hindrance . . . to making the most of and enjoying the healthy time that I’m having,” after the drugs.
“We may seek, too, a relaxing of inhibitions that makes it easier to bond with each other, or transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear,” writes Sacks. Sakuda may have experienced her mortality in a different way, which was unique to her.
Researcher David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, told The Guardian: “Psychedelics change the brain in, perhaps, the most profound way of any drug, at least in terms of understanding consciousness and connectivity. Therefore we should be doing a lot more of this research.”
Learn more about psychedelics at NPR