Landmark trial to treat grief from cancer loss with psychedelics

The death of a loved one following a cancer battle can trigger prolonged grief that can seemingly cause life to come to a standstill. It can also be difficult to treat with traditional medication and therapy, leaving the griever ‘stuck’ in this stage for a year or more.

Now, in one of the first trials of its kind and the first in Australia since psychedelics were approved for therapeutic use, psilocybin will be used to treat adults in this grief holding pattern.

“Prolonged grief can cause really intense and overwhelming suffering, affecting a person’s ability to function at home, work and in their relationships,” said Vanessa Beesley, assistant professor at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, Australia. “It essentially leaves them stuck in that early bereavement phase.

“We want to investigate whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can bring some relief and help them live with their loss. We’ve been encouraged by other trials where similar psilocybin interventions were associated with rapid and enduring mental health benefits for people with treatment-resistant depression and end-of-life anxiety.”

The upcoming 15-week pilot trial will feature up to 15 participants who have lost a loved one to cancer.

Participants will undergo three psychotherapy sessions ahead of the psilocybin dosing, which will be done in the presence of the therapist and a nurse. Afterwards, they’ll have four more therapy sessions.

“The psychotherapy sessions after dosing day will really be focused on helping participants process their psilocybin experience and any unresolved grief as well as identifying changes the participant might make to their life following the experience,” said Beesley. “It’s really important the intervention is built around structured psychotherapy, so participants can get to know their support team, prepare for dosing day and later unpack the effects with expert guidance.”

The dosing day is expected to stretch eight hours, with the participant under constant supervision in a private room with a bed, plus props such as an eye mask and music designed for their experience.

“This is a critical trial,” said Dr Stephen Parker, the trial’s psychiatrist. “There are a lot of people who don’t necessarily benefit and respond to conventional mental health treatments and the hope of something different, something new, is really important.

“The goal is to examine whether this therapy is acceptable, safe and potentially beneficial to people in some way,” he added. “This will help guide planning of larger studies with a big enough sample to test the effectiveness of this intervention for prolonged grief.”

Source: QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

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