Can psychedelic drugs help ease the fear of death?

Anthony Bossis, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University, has been researching whether psychedelic drugs can help relieve the anxiety of patients with life-threatening illnesses. And the results so far are remarkable.

Patients in a clinical trial attempt to ease their fears and depression using psychedelic drugs


A warning: The audio for this show includes the story of a very intense experience and some of the language is explicit and may offend.

Patients without much longer to live are finding mental (and perhaps even spiritual) relief in an unlikely source — magic mushrooms. 

Anthony Bossis, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University, has been researching whether the hallucinogen psilocybin, a chemical compound found in mushrooms, could relieve the anxiety of patients with life-threatening illnesses. 

His team's clinical trial was small, with only 29 participants, but the reported impacts were dramatic. Between 60 to 80 per cent of participants with depression or a sense of hopelessness were in better spirits nearly 5 years later, and almost all attributed the change to the drug. 

"I began having thoughts about my daughters, and how amazing they are. And I started to feel love. The rest of this experience was suffused with love all around me," said Dinah Bazer, about her time in the trial. 

"My family loves me, it's not just that I love them, they love me and I can feel that love."

Psychedelic drugs have had a long, difficult history in academic circles, with the research hard to perform and the material hard to gather. In both Canada and the U.S., psilocybin is a government controlled substance — possession and distribution are illegal.

Related stories:

But in recent decades, Canada and the U.S. have become more open to allowing researchers to perform small clinical trials to test psilocybin.

Anthony P. Bossis, PhD is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. (Courtesy of NYU Langone Health)

Bossis's team is hardly the only one performing research into the effects of hallucinogens on the mind. In 2009, Roland Griffiths, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at John Hopkins University, released a paper about "mystical-type experiences" that could be prompted by psilocybin.

The article noted that "67 per cent of the volunteers rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life."

His work prompted Bossis, and other researchers at NYU, to look into what effect the compound might have on anxiety or depression. 

Tapestry talked to Bossis in 2015, as they were analyzing data gathered in the prior five years. It was clear to Bossis, even before they published their conclusions a year later, that was he was witnessing something remarkable. 

"[Patients] come in with a fear of death, a fear of cancer, a fear of distress, a fear of change, fear of future suffering, a fear of pain, and leave, eight hours later, and the next day report feeling incredibly different," said Bossis.

As for whether there's something more mystical at the heart of these experiences, Bossis told both Tapestry and the New Yorker, which chronicled in detail the NYU team's effort, the same thing: "It's above my pay grade."



Written by Arman Aghbali. Produced by Jeff Goodes, Tina Pittaway and Elizabeth Bowie.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?