Study finds that psilocybin assisted therapy could effectively treat suicidal ideation in patients facing life-threatening cancer.
Evidence shows that these improvements in mental wellbeing are sustained, for months to years, following treatment.
Individuals facing life-threatening or terminal cancer are at increased risk of suicidal ideation and completed suicide. These patients report pervasive feelings of loss of meaning and existential distress. These symptoms are not currently addressed by pharmacological cancer treatments and little is known about solutions to alleviate these effects.
Psilocybin: a possible addition to cancer treatment?
Motivated by preliminary evidence that psilocybin, a hallucinogenic drug commonly known as ‘magic mushrooms,’ might treat suicidal ideation, researcher Stephen Ross and his colleagues began investigating their hypothesis.
Ross and his team conducted a randomised control trial, consisting of 11 participants with advanced cancer who presented with suicidal ideation, to undergo psychotherapy alongside psilocybin treatment.
Participants in one condition were administered psilocybin on the first dosing session and niacin – a Vitamin B3 supplement serving as an active control – seven weeks later. Participants in the second condition were initially given niacin, followed by psilocybin in the later dosing session.
The patients completed assessments of suicidal ideation, loss of meaning, hopelessness and spiritual wellbeing, before and throughout the psychotherapy treatment.
Outcomes from the Psilocybin Assisted Psychotherapy
Although the study design does not allow a causal link to be established, study authors write that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy “produced rapid and sustained improvements in depression, demoralisation and hopelessness in people with cancer.”
The group that received psilocybin first showed a significant drop in suicidal ideation and loss of meaning scores at every assessment point, compared to baseline levels. Crucially, a lessening in suicidal ideation was also correlated with a decrease in loss of meaning, hopelessness and demoralisation.
The follow-up assessments indicate that these changes were sustained for months to years following the initial treatment. Decreases in suicidal ideation were apparent over 6 months after treatment, while reductions in loss of meaning were maintained at the three and four-year assessments.
Researchers propose that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy includes existential components which could lessen suicidal thinking by “enhancing meaning-making.” This hypothesis could be tested in future trials.
Study authors write that: “These preliminary results implicate psilocybin treatment as a potentially effective alternative to existing antidepressant medications in patients with cancer that are also suicidal, and warrant further investigation in participants with elevated levels of depression and suicidality.”
Although further empirical research is required to understand the active mechanisms in the relationship between psilocybin-assisted therapy and suicidal ideation, these results show the potential for far-reaching effects.
The scope of such treatments could be extended to treat suicidality among patients with treatment-resistant depression or life-threatening illnesses other than cancer.
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