Benefits of Psychedelics for Terminal Illness

An older woman wearing a head scarf sits at home and looks contemplatively out the window.

FatCamera/E+/Getty

Psychedelics are typically known as recreational drugs that induce hours-long episodes of hallucination. First gaining steam in the counterculture movement of the 1970s, many may associate these substances with those hoping to escape reality or artists wanting to enhance their creative process. However, that is a very limited view of psychedelics and how they are actually used these days.

While many choose to ingest these drugs recreationally, mental health professionals have begun researching the alternative benefits of psychedelics. In turn, it is becoming increasingly apparent that psychedelics can heal mental health concerns. This article will explore the benefits of taking psychedelics while coping with a terminal illness that cannot be cured and is likely to end in death.

What Are Psychedelics?

Psychedelics are substances that cause individuals who ingest them to hallucinate. The most common psychedelics that are used therapeutically include ketamine, MDMA, psilocybin (often referred to as mushrooms), LSD (commonly known as acid), and ibogaine.

Each of these substances is used in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. This form of mental healthcare can potentially help treat issues like the following:

  • depressive disorders
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • substance abuse disorder

Ketamine is an animal anesthetic used by veterinarians. When taken, it causes users to dissociate from reality.

MDMA is a substance that is notorious for producing heightened sensory experiences and promoting positive emotions. This is largely due to its impact on dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin production. These chemicals in our brain can stimulate feelings of connection and euphoria.

LSD, or acid, produces prolonged episodes of hallucination. Psilocybin, or mushrooms, also produces prolonged episodes of hallucinations and is particularly known for one’s perception of time and space. Ibogaine is a less common hallucinogen that is proven particularly successful in helping those experiencing substance abuse disorder and drug withdrawal issues. 

How Can Psychedelics Help With Terminal Illness?

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is also under consideration for treating those suffering from terminal illnesses, such as an incurable cancer or other disease. Those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness can often be severely depressed. Furthermore, terminally ill people may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy could provide much-needed relief to those who are mentally and physically suffering.

It isn’t uncommon for terminally ill individuals to feel demoralized by the medical system, void of hope, and even suicidal. While antidepressants may be prescribed, they also come with side effects that can further feelings of depression and suicidality.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for terminally ill people may lead to increased clarity, insights, and a sense of connection. Deeply spiritual insights also can occur during a session, which can assist terminally ill individuals in making meaning out of the pain they’re experiencing.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is conducted in a comfortable and serene setting under the supervision of a mental health professional. A single session can last between six to eight hours, although sometimes a series of shorter sessions will be administered.

Outcomes of psychedelic treatment vary. In some cases, psychedelics will be administered in very small doses daily. For example, daily doses of ketamine are sometimes suggested for those suffering from depression. Some report noticing symptoms of anxiety and depression waning for a few weeks to a few months. Others find their symptoms permanently alleviated.

Key factors contributing to a positive treatment outcome include feeling connected to the clinician providing the treatment, preparation and education regarding the treatment process, and a soothing environment. In addition, it is essential that the setting where treatment is facilitated is void of harsh lighting, music, art, and people.

Risks of Taking Psychedelics

There are risks associated with taking psychedelics as a terminally ill person. For example, psychedelics can induce nausea, vomiting, and blood pressure increases. Therefore, psychedelics must be taken under the supervision of a trained clinician. Furthermore, anyone considering this type of treatment should take care to weigh out the benefits and risks with a medical professional.

Additionally, there is a risk of developing hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD). This is a disorder where one's experienced after taking psychedelics are prolonged. Under some circumstances, the hallucinations can even be permanent.

This is a devastating disorder that significantly disrupts one's quality of life. However, the risk of developing this disorder is low when the drug is ingested under clinical supervision. This is because taking a psychedelic under clinical supervision ensures the dosage is properly measured and administered.

How to Get Started Safely

Currently, psychedelics are a class of drugs that are still criminalized. If you are interested in exploring psychedelics for treating terminal illnesses, consider looking into a clinical trial.

Currently, psychedelics are FDA-approved under clinical trials, making this a safe and legal way to receive this type of treatment. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is an organization that is spearheading research on psychedelic treatments and is conducting clinical trials. Even if you aren’t sure if this treatment is for you, reaching out to them can help provide further clarity. 

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing terminal illness can be uniquely isolating and painful. It can be hard to find others who understand the emotional experience you’re having, leading to feelings of depression and hopelessness.

You don’t have to suffer in silence. It is essential to access mental health treatment so you can explore all psychological treatment options. Ask your physician for support, reach out to a mental health professional, or dial 988 to get connected to resources. 

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Krippner S. Ecstatic landscapes: the manifestation of psychedelic art. JHP. 2017;57(4):415-435. doi:10.1177/0022167816671579

  2. Schenberg EE. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: a paradigm shift in psychiatric research and development. Front Pharmacol. 2018;9:733. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2018.00733

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Commonly Used Drugs Chart

  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly) Drug Facts.

  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Hallucinogens Drug Facts.

  6. Noller GE, Frampton CM, Yazar-Klosinski B. Ibogaine treatment outcomes for opioid dependence from a twelve-month follow-up observational study. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2018;44(1):37-46. doi: 10.1080/00952990.2017.1310218

  7. Byock I. Taking psychedelics seriously. J. Palliat. Med. 2018;21(4):417-421. doi:10.1089/jpm.2017.0684

  8. Husain MI, Umer M, Mulsant BH. Can the revival of serotonergic psychedelic drugs as treatments for mental disorders help to characterize their risks and benefits? Expert Opin. Drug Saf. 2022;21(6):721-724. doi:10.1080/14740338.2022.2063274

  9. Orsolini L, Papanti GD, De Berardis D, Guirguis A, Corkery JM, Schifano F. The “endless trip” among the nps users: psychopathology and psychopharmacology in the hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder. A systematic review. Front Psychiatry. 2017;0. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00240

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.