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Using Psychedelics for End-of-Life and Palliative Care

How psychedelic therapy is redefining death and dying

Brittany Mailhot

Despite dying being an intensely personal journey, the Western healthcare system often takes choice and autonomy away from those facing death. But what if there was another way? What if we could go through our death experience from a grounded, open, and very honest place that would allow us to choose what’s best for our own unique journey? As it turns out, both ancient indigenous practices and modern scientific research have demonstrated the power of psychedelics when it comes to accepting and making choices about our own death, especially within end-of-life/palliative care settings.

What Is Palliative Care?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life for patients facing terminal or life-threatening illnesses. Instead of trying to cure the patient, the aim is to provide the best quality of life possible by focusing on physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Palliative care by itself has shown amazing benefits, and now the conversation about integrating psychedelics into this type of care is opening up in the West.

Psychedelic Therapy and Dying: A Look Into the Past

The relationship between psychedelics and death is nothing new. Indigenous cultures around the globe have been using hallucinogenic plants, like San Pedro, Peyote, and psilocybin-containing mushrooms, for spiritual and physical healing, rebirth, and rites of passage since ancient times. Just like modern palliative care models aim to do, indigenous groups have used psychedelics to help people find wholeness within themselves through all types of death, including the little deaths that occur throughout our lives, like moving from childhood to adulthood or overcoming addiction, and the capital-D Death.

The Wixáritari people (commonly referred to as the Huichol), native to what is now known as Mexico and the Southwestern United States, have a long history of working with the Peyote cactus as a soul-regenerative medicine that helps individuals let go of the past and move forward into the next phase of their journey through an annual pilgrimage.

Similarly, the San Pedro Curative Cults based in the Andes of what is now known as Peru, have attracted people from all over the world for their practice of using the San Pedro cactus for diagnosing and healing the illnesses of individuals facing death. 

Early Western Research: Psychedelics for Palliative Care

Before the dark ages of psychedelic prohibition when research slowed, several studies were conducted and published about the potential benefits of psychedelics in palliative and end-of-life care. These studies reported significant improvements in patient attitudes toward death, physical and emotional pain, well-being, mood, and sleep quality. Many of the terminal patients who participated reported that the benefits lasted for upwards of two weeks, making them a tempting alternative to daily medications with a laundry list of side effects.

End-of-Life Choices with Psilocybin

Despite the stigma and complex legal issues surrounding psychedelics, positive change is happening, and the Western world is once again considering the medicinal benefits of these substances. With countries like Canada changing the legal status of psychedelics, more possibilities are opening up and some incredible organizations are working to get psychedelics to those who need it most. TheraPsil, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to helping patients in need access medical psilocybin in a safe, legal, and subsidized way, is one of these very organizations.  

I spoke with Spencer Hawkswell, TheraPsil’s CEO, about the exciting successes that the organization has had over the last few years, specifically with securing legal access to psychedelics to both improve the quality of life for patients during end-of-life care and help patients make informed choices regarding their own death. When asked about his take on the benefits of psilocybin in end-of-life settings, Hawkswell noted that with “a single dose people are off SSRIs and pain medications, and their quality of life has increased. Psilocybin has a profound effect on life meaning and purpose, and I can’t possibly imagine what it would be like to end your life with a lack of meaning and a lack of purpose”.

TheraPsil has helped quite a few people make meaningful decisions surrounding their death, and Hawkswell had some incredible examples to share. One young woman with a terminal cancer diagnosis was able to get off a constant stream of fentanyl and morphine and spend the last few days of her life laughing with loved ones and finding acceptance before making the choice to go the route of medical assistance in dying.

In another example, a man with intense psychological suffering resulting from several amputations was beginning the process of medical assistance in dying but tried psilocybin first. His experience was so profound that he decided life was worth living because, even with his pain and suffering, there was so much beauty to experience.

“If you ask anyone, they’ll say it was a miracle,” Hawkswell stated regarding these outcomes, “well, it wasn’t a miracle–it was psilocybin. This is science.”

Brittany is a dynamic professional passionate about creating meaningful content and spending time in the forest.

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