Kathleen Kral, a retired English teacher in her 70s, was diagnosed with terminal cancer three years ago. She was already struggling with depression but the diagnosis exacerbated it. So she tried psilocybin “magic” mushrooms, which not only alleviated her depression but helped her process a traumatic miscarriage from her thirties. She appeared in the Netflix documentary “How to Change Your Mind” which explored the possibility of using psychedelic drugs to treat severe physical and mental illnesses, like depression.
Magic Mushrooms For Depression in Cancer Patients
“I’m grounded in my Catholic faith, but I think that I tended to look at the negative side of life. Cancer diagnosis has made it much worse,” Kral said in the documentary. Although some of her friends tried to dissuade her, she wanted to see if magic mushrooms would help her. So she volunteered for a clinical trial. This was in accordance with her faith since drugs acquired legally aren’t prohibited for Catholics, according to Tina Beattie, a former professor of Catholic studies at the University of Roehampton. 
Magic mushrooms are known for the psychoactive ingredient called psilocybin. It’s illegal in most countries; however, researchers are looking into its effects on anxiety and depression, particularly for those faced with terminal cancer. Case in point, these patients can apply for a synthetic version of psilocybin from a licensed dealer in Canada, but it often takes a long time. Cancer patients in particular can face emotional and psychological distress that worsens their quality of life “probably more” than the physical symptoms, according to Dr. Manish Agrawal in “How to Change Your Mind”. He is an oncologist and researcher in Maryland, who was involved in Kral’s clinical trial.
“The depression, if it could be alleviated, why not try it?” Kral said. So in November 2020, she took a high dose of psilocybin under medical supervision at the Aquilino Cancer Center in Maryland. The trip began one hour after the dose. It began pleasantly, with Kral conducting beautiful music. Then she saw her ancestors’ weddings, followed by her own happy wedding.
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“I thought the waves were the cancer.”
But then the trip became scary. “These ferocious waves were going on and they scared me so much,” she said. “I thought the waves were the cancer. And then I decided: Teach me what you need to teach me, waves. The vision went on and there was quite a bit of blackness. I had the feeling that I was inept. That I could not bring forth life.”
This is when she began processing a miscarriage she had 44 years ago. She saw the Virgin Mary, who told her she would take care of the baby. “It’s been hidden in the mind, I guess. Now it’s out and it’s free so I don’t have to worry anymore,” Kral said.
Overall, Kral had a positive experience that continued after the trip. “I still fall into depression. I still feel pain from the cancer. But there is an underlying reality that it’s OK.” Many other cancer patients who participated in psilocybin trials also found it helped with depression and anxiety; however, researchers have yet to understand why it helps and if it’s safe for other patients.
For instance, one trial involved 51 cancer patients suffering from depression and/or anxiety. One group received a high dose of psilocybin, and they reported reduced depression and anxiety, as well as increased quality of life and optimism. Six months later, these changes were sustained for 80% of the group. 
Another study followed 29 patients, who received the psilocybin dose or a placebo, then were given the opposite seven weeks later. Throughout this process, they received nine sessions of psychotherapy. After six and a half months, 60–80% reported significant reductions in depression and anxiety. Then the researchers followed up on 15 of the participants 3.2 and 4.5 years later. And over 70% of them reported positive life changes to the therapy experience. 
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Psilocybin For Major Depressive Disorder
What about people with severe depression and no cancer? Well, Matthew Johnson, a professor in psychedelics and consciousness at Johns Hopkins University, is not sure they’d feel the same benefits. “It may be that the nature of the distress in cancer is more susceptible to lasting treatment with psilocybin, but that is anecdotal and we need future research to tease this out,” he said.
But a 2020 study followed 24 adults most of whom experienced major depressive disorder for two years. They received two doses of psilocybin along with supportive psychotherapy. After the treatment, most participants reported a significant decrease in their symptoms. Almost half were in remission at the follow-up four weeks later. In other words, they no longer qualified as having depression. The researchers plan to follow up again a year after the study to see if these improvements continued. 
“Our findings add to evidence that, under carefully controlled conditions, this is a promising therapeutic approach that can lead to significant and durable improvements in depression,” said Natalie Gukasyan, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. However, she added that “the results we see are in a research setting and require quite a lot of preparation and structured support from trained clinicians and therapists, and people should not attempt to try it on their own.” 
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