Can a simple fungus conquer humanity’s greatest enemy? Or more literally, “Can psilocybin help ease human beings’ fear of death?” is the question the documentary “Death, Dying, and Psychedelics” released this year seeks to answer about psychedelics.
Death, Dying, and Psychedelics, which is directed by Kevin Balktick for Horizons Media, documents ongoing research on psilocybin — the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms — and whether its use might provide comfort to the terminally ill.
In recent years, psilocybin gained traction as a potential treatment for physical and mental health ailments, including severe depression, alcoholism and smoking. Although not featured in the documentary, a study whose results were published last year by John Hopkins Medicine found, “Two doses of the psychedelic substance psilocybin, given with supportive psychotherapy, produced rapid and large reductions in depressive symptoms, with most participants showing improvement and half of study participants achieving remission through the four-week follow-up.”
Prior to and parallel to these types of studies, researchers — including some of those featured in the film — have also been investigating psilocybin’s effects on the mental state of those with a terminal illness or otherwise near death. This is an unusual field of study, not least because of Western cultural attitudes towards death.
“Our culture has made great accomplishments improving length of life, length of stay,” Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, says in the film. “But often we struggle in providing the kind of support and assistance for individuals who are overwhelmed with existential anxiety and depression and demoralization.”
The other reason the study of psilocybin and death is unusual is the psilocybin itself, or as it’s more commonly known, ‘shrooms.’ Archeologists believe humans have used these “magic mushrooms” since prehistoric times. However, since their introduction in Western popular culture in the 1950s and ’60s, shrooms have been demonized alongside other psychedelics, both natural and laboratory-made such as PCP and LSD. In 1965, America banned most known psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin, as well as others discovered later, such as MDMA.
This is where Horizons Media enters the scene. The organization classifies itself as an educational non-profit focused on creating “live and digital forums, classes, and films that examine the role of psychedelic drugs and plant medicines in science, medicine, culture, and spirituality.”
Groups like this, which allow professionals to come together and discuss psychedelics in a serious way, are part of the growing momentum that has allowed psychedelics to creep out of the Drug Enforcement Administration (or DEA) doghouse and slowly into the laboratories of prestigious universities such as New York University, the University of California Los Angeles, and John Hopkins University.
Checking in via the Zoom chat room with other virtual attendees of the online premiere of Death, Dying, and Psychedelics, I found attendees from places expected — Berkeley, New York City, Mexico, and Portugal — and unexpected — the Andromeda Galaxy (I’m assuming the premiere attendee meant spiritually).
In the post-screening chat, you could tell many were personally touched.
“That was really beautiful. One of my favorite ideas is that we need to think of life on Earth as a visit. Thank you for that,” screening attendee Colleen N. (last name withheld for privacy) shared afterward.
Then there were those looking to score shrooms. Several screening attendees discussed meeting in person to further discuss the topics raised in the documentary and perhaps conduct some “personal research.” However, most screening attendees and documentary participants handled the film and its subject matter with the gravity you would expect.
One of the founders of Horizons Media is director Kevin Balktick.
For more than a decade, Balktick has operated in high-end art circles doing what artists and curators do. He is best known for his production of large-scale, whimsically themed festivals and parties in and around New York City.
During the post-screening roundtable, he was the first to point to the elephant in (or rather not in) the room in the form of cultural diversity in his film and Westernized psychedelic research and study in general.
“Death is universal, but it also has to be noted that this film, like much of our audience at Horizons, is composed of middle-class white Americans,” Balktick said. “I do support everyone who we’ve portrayed and who has joined us this evening. I’m very proud of the film we’ve made, but I also have to admit it would be even better if projects like this, the audience at Horizons and this community just more closely reflected the makeup of places like New York, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, which is where this research was conducted.”
Balktick’s self-criticism aside, with Death, Dying, and Psychedelics he has produced a film that centers on earlier psychedelic studies others in the research field are now building on in their contemporary research.
A 2016 study featured in the film worked specifically with Patients With Life-Threatening Cancer. One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Anthony P. Bosis, is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
“This was a dream study for many of us. This was a study I dreamt of in my twenties when I first came across all this incredible [psychedelic] literature of the past,” Bosis says in the film.
Grob, who is also the director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Harbor UCLA Medical Center and co-authored a similar study published prior to the one by Bosis, sought to clarify the purpose of the studies in the film.
This treatment model is not for the explicit treatment of the cancer per se. It’s rather [for] the psychospiritual crisis that often emerges in the wake of an advanced and potentially fatal illnessDr. Charles Grob
The results of both trials were incredible, according to both doctors and their published studies.
“The important findings of our trial was that there was sustained and rapid reduction in depression and anxiety, and that lasted throughout the course of the trial. So at the end of the trial nine months later, 80% of the participants still reported these profoundly reduced levels of anxiety and depression,” Bosis said.
Of course not having to deal with shady college kids to score shrooms and risk jail time might naturally decrease anyone’s anxiety levels.
“There was also an improvement in spiritual well being and quality of life, and the volunteers reported a decrease in demoralization: this sense of hopelessness, helplessness. And many cited it as their single-most or top-five-most spiritual or meaning-making experiences of their life,” Bosis said.
It’s unclear if the Biden administration’s DEA will continue to ease federal restrictions to allow greater research in the field of psilocybin and other psychedelics. However, similar to marijuana, many states are taking it out of the hands of the federal government by passing their own legalization or decriminalization laws.
In November’s elections, Oregon decriminalized all recreational drugs. In the nation’s capital, voters completely deprioritized psilocybin, which means police officers in Washington aren’t allowed to waste valuable police resources investigating natural psychedelics and the US Attorney for DC will likewise cease criminal prosecutions related to the substance.
In the short term, regardless of how mentally or spiritually efficacious the results from these studies show psilocybin to be, it will be politicians who will decide who gets access to these treatments. But if Bosis’ study participant and two-time cancer survivor Dinah Bazer is to be believed, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks.
“I think taking the psilocybin did reinforce my feelings that there is nothing after death and there is nothing to be afraid of,” Bazer says in the documentary. “One of the things that happened as a result of my psilocybin experience was that all of my anxieties were relieved. It wasn’t just the anxiety over dying or over a recurrence of this cancer, all of my anxieties were relieved. I was more relaxed in general than I had even been.”