Imagine that you work in a field where you witness people dying regularly (and perhaps some of you readers do). Medical professionals often speak of emotionally “hardening” themselves over time – and can you blame them? The toll such a profession must take is practically unimaginable to a layperson such as this author.
However, perhaps there’s another way. One medical professional, rather than erecting a wall of practiced emotional distance, decided to try something different.
Anthony Back, M.D., a professor at the Department of Medicine at the Univeristy of Washington and practicing oncologist and palliative medicine physician, had read some of the many studies exploring the great potential of psilocybin in psychotherapy, applied in particular for the purposes of reducing stress, depression, and existential dread associated with end-of-life care.
Feeling a sense of responsibility for his patients and not wanting to suggest a treatment that may not work, or worse, increase the prevalence of negative emotion, Dr. Back decided that the only way to know if psilocybin was worth taking seriously as a treatment was to experience its effects for himself. (Oh, if only all doctors felt this way!).
In his brief but vulnerable paper about “What Psilocybin Taught Me About Dying”, Dr. Back describes his experience:
In a true case of “physician, heal thyself”, the good doctor found himself connected to our shared reality in a different way, one that he (and few others) had ever experienced before.
In the paper, he discusses how his experience with psilocybin made him aware of what he describes as “the small me,” or in other words, the day-to-day, ego-driven personality that drives most of our decisions and behaviors. He describes how after his psilocybin experience that his “small me” is now accompanied by what he calls “an ineffable sense of the Beyond”, that sense of oneness and harmony that so many psilocybin users have described feeling.
An Oceanic Sensation of Being Unified With Everything: The Potential Role of Psilocybin in End-of-Life Palliative Care
Ultimately, Dr. Back’s experience with psilocybin proved to have changed the way he thinks of life and death. As he outlines in his follow-up paper, What Psilocybin Taught Me, One Year Later, the knowledge he took back with him from his single psilocybin “trip” has made a positive impact on how he relates to his patients—and himself.
In essence, when speaking to a patient (or the loved ones of a patient), Dr. Back describes how he used to focus on discussing the needs of the patients “small self”, or in other words, their ego-driven, arguably mundane, day-to-day desires. Instead, he looks to that great, unified Beyond for inspiration, and in the papers recalls a couple of scenarios where this line of thinking provided his patients with a greater sense of comfort.
Palliative care is an emerging medical field wherein specialists focus on providing comfort and improved quality of life for patients with serious illnesses.
The field is not exclusive to end-of-life patients in a hospice setting; palliative care physicians work with patients suffering from a broad spectrum of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and others.
It seems that psilocybin can play an important role for not only patients, but doctors as well—or anyone willing to go into the experience with an intention in mind, as was the case with Dr. Back.
However, for end-of-life patients facing down the inevitability of their own mortality, palliative care physicians like Dr. Back may find that the compound offers a profound sense of peace.
In the report Psilocybin and palliative end-of-life care, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers Richard C. Sheldon and Peter S. Hendricks found that psilocybin proved to be “very encouraging” for cancer patients suffering from psychological distress. The compound has been shown to offer “rapid” and “clinically robust” reductions in depression and anxiety for end-of-life patients.
This, we strongly suspect, must have something to do with that great oceanic Beyond that the commendable and brave Dr. Back described.
Current and Future Applications of Psilocybin for Mental Health
As we’ve discussed before here on The Psilocybe Philosophy in our post What is Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy, and Why Are Medical Professionals so Excited About It? the mental health applications of psilocybin aren’t just for end-of-life patients. The reason we see so many studies regarding that particular use is because terminally ill patients are perhaps among the demographic who could benefit from psilocybin the most. From a regulatory perspective, it’s probably also easier to gain permission for researchers, because frankly, anyone with a sense of empathy would likely do all they could to increase comfort and positive emotions for a dying person.
Psilocybin-assisted therapy has shown promise for treating anyone with anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder. Since one in five American adults suffer from a mental health condition, it is imperative that psilocybin advocates continue the legal fight for decriminalization of psilocybin, and hopefully eventual legalization for compassion purposes. There are examples of cancer patients bringing lawsuits against the DEA seeking access to psilocybin mushrooms for palliative care.
How Amateur Microscopists and Mycologists Study Psilocybin Mushroom Spores at Home
If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of psilocybin, please see our detailed article on some of the most important mushroom therapy benefits of psilocybin such as for psilocybin psychotherapy.