Tagged Mental Health

New Legal Push Aims to Speed Magic Mushrooms to Dying Patients

Back in March, just as anxiety over COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S., Erinn Baldeschwiler of La Conner, Washington, found herself facing her own private dread.

Just 48 and the mother of two teenagers, Baldeschwiler was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer after discovering a small lump on her chest, no bigger than a pea. Within weeks, it was the size of a golf ball, angry and red. Doctors gave her two years to live.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Frankly, I was terrified.”

But instead of retreating into her illness, Baldeschwiler is pouring energy into a new effort to help dying patients gain legal access to psilocybin — the mind-altering compound found in so-called magic mushrooms — to ease their psychic pain.

“I have personally struggled with depression, anxiety, anger,” Baldeschwiler said. “This therapy is designed to really dive in and release these negative fears and shadows.”

Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, a Seattle palliative care physician, and Kathryn Tucker, a lawyer who advocates on behalf of terminally ill patients and chairs a psychedelic practice group at Emerge Law Group, are championing a novel strategy that would make psilocybin available using state and federal “right-to-try” laws that allow terminally ill patients access to investigational drugs.

They contend that psilocybin — whether found in psychedelic mushrooms or synthetic copies — meets the criteria for use laid out by more than 40 states and the 2017 Right to Try Act approved by the Trump administration.

“Can you look at the statute and see by its terms that it applies to psilocybin?” Tucker said. “I think the answer is yes.”

Still, the pair admit they’re pushing a legal theory still untested in the courts. “This is untrodden ground,” Aggarwal said.

This month, Aggarwal, who works at the Advanced Integrative Medical Science Institute, known as AIMS, took the first step toward federal authorization of the substance in Washington state and perhaps across the nation. He submitted an application to manufacture psilocybin to the state’s Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission, which would allow him to grow psilocybin mushrooms from spores at his clinic and administer them for therapeutic use.

Commission members haven’t yet reviewed the application, but Gordon MacCracken, an agency spokesperson, said there “would be a path” for possible license and use — if the application meets the requirements of state regulators and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Currently, psilocybin use is illegal under federal law, classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, which applies to chemicals and substances with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, such as heroin and LSD.

Recently, however, several U.S. cities and states have voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of psilocybin. This month, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin for regulated use in treating intractable mental health problems. The first patients will have access beginning in January 2023.

It’s part of a wider movement to rekindle acceptance of psilocybin, which was among psychedelic drugs vilified — and ultimately banned — after the legendary counterculture excesses of the 1960s and 1970s.

“I think a lot of those demons, those fears, have been metabolized in the 50 years since then,” Aggarwal said. “Not completely, but we’ve moved it along so that it’s safe to try again.”

He points to a growing body of evidence that finds that psilocybin can have significant and lasting effects on psychological distress. The Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, launched this year, has published dozens of peer-reviewed studies based on two decades of research. They include studies confirming that psilocybin helped patients grappling with major depressive disorder, thoughts of suicide and the emotional repercussions of a cancer diagnosis.

Psilocybin therapy appears to work by chemically altering brain function in a way that temporarily affects a person’s ego, or sense of self. In essence, it plays on the out-of-body experiences made famous in portrayals of America’s psychedelic ’60s.

By getting out of their heads — and separating from all the fear and emotion surrounding death — people experience “being” as something distinct from their physical forms. That leads to a fundamental shift in perspective, said Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care specialist and medical officer for the Institute for Human Caring at Providence St. Joseph Health.

“What psychedelics do is foster a frame shift from feeling helpless and hopeless and that life is not worth living to seeing that we are connected to other people and we are connected to a universe that has inherent connection,” he said.

“Along with that shift in perspective, there is very commonly a notable dissolution of the fear of dying, of nonexistence and of loss, and that’s just remarkable.”

The key is to offer the drugs under controlled conditions, in a quiet room supervised by a trained guide, Byock said. “It turned out they are exceedingly safe when used in a carefully screened, carefully guided situation with trained therapists,” he said. “Almost the opposite is true when used in an unprepared, unscreened population.”

Baldeschwiler is one of many cancer patients eager to undergo psilocybin therapy to help quell the psychic pain that can accompany a terminal illness. Advocates say the therapy appears to work by temporarily altering brain function in a way that affects a person’s sense of self, helping them separate from the fear and emotion surrounding death.(Dan DeLong for KHN )

Baldeschwiler is one of several AIMS cancer patients eager to undergo psilocybin therapy. Another is Michal Bloom, 64, of Seattle, who was diagnosed in 2017 with stage 3 ovarian cancer. The anxiety of living with the terminal disease is overwhelming, she said.

“It’s as if someone came up to you, put a gun to the back of your head, whispered, ‘I have a gun to your head and I’ll have a gun to your head for the rest of your life. I may pull the trigger, I may not,’” she said. “How do you live like that?”

Research shows that a single six-hour session of psilocybin therapy may be enough to quell that fear, Aggarwal said. “I’m really interested in a right-to-try approach because it’s really what we need for patients right now,” he said.

Under the state and federal laws, to be eligible for “right-to-try” status, a treatment must have completed a phase 1 clinical trial approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration, be part of active clinical trials and in ongoing development or production.

So far, psilocybin ticks all those boxes, Tucker said.

The FDA has granted “breakthrough therapy” status to psilocybin for use in U.S. clinical trials conducted by Compass Pathways, a psychedelic research group in Britain, and by the Usona Institute, a nonprofit medical research group in Wisconsin. More than three dozen trials are recruiting participants or completed, federal records show.

But access to the drug remains a hurdle. Though psychedelic mushrooms grow wild in the Pacific Northwest and underground sources of the drug are available, finding a legal supply is nearly impossible.

Tucker and Aggarwal asked Usona last summer for a supply of the synthetic psilocybin its researchers produce for clinical trials, but so far have received nothing. Penny Patterson, a Usona spokesperson, said there’s been no “definitive resolution” and that conversations are continuing.

The firm’s reluctance may reflect a larger unease with employing right-to-try laws to speed use of psilocybin, said Dr. Anthony Back, a palliative care physician at the University of Washington.

Back supports the use of psilocybin for cancer patients and has even tried the drug to better understand the experience. But he said using psilocybin outside of formal clinical trials might endanger Usona’s ability to get traditional FDA approval. Adverse events may occur that will have to be reported to the FDA, an agency already watching the research closely.

“I can see why they’re hesitant, to be honest,” Back said. “I think right-to-try is an uphill battle.”

Still, Tucker and other advocates say it’s a battle worth fighting. End of Life Washington, a group focused on helping terminally ill patients use the state’s Death With Dignity Act, recently published a policy that supports psilocybin therapy as a form of palliative care. Other treatments for anxiety and depression, such as medication and counseling, may simply not be practical or effective at that point, said Judith Gordon, a psychologist and member of the group’s board of directors.

“When people are dying, they don’t have the time or the energy to do a lot of psychotherapy,” she said.

Baldeschwiler agrees. With perhaps less than two years to live, she wants access to any tool that can ease her pain. Immunotherapy has helped with the physical symptoms, dramatically shrinking the size of the tumor on her chest. Harder to treat has been the gnawing anxiety that she won’t see her 16-year-old daughter, Shea McGinnis, and 13-year-old son, Gibson McGinnis, become adults.

“They are beautiful children, good spirits,” she said. “To know I might not be around for them sucks. It’s really hard.”

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Family Mourns Man With Mental Illness Killed by Police, Calls for Change

Rulennis Muñoz remembers the phone ringing on Sept. 13. Her mother was calling from the car, frustrated. Rulennis could also hear her brother Ricardo shouting in the background. Her mom told her that Ricardo, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five years earlier, wouldn’t take his medication.

Within an hour, Ricardo Muñoz, 27, was dead. Muñoz, who had a knife, was killed by a police officer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The incident has striking similarities to the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia six weeks later but has received far less national attention.

According to a Washington Post tracker, as of Nov. 18, police had killed 987 people in the U.S. in the past 12 months. Like Muñoz and Wallace, almost a quarter of those people had a diagnosis of a serious mental illness.

Two Sisters, Two Different Calls for Help

Ricardo Muñoz lived with his mother in Lancaster, but earlier on that September Sunday he had been across town at his sister Rulennis Muñoz’s house. Rulennis recalled that her brother had been having what she calls “an episode” that morning. Ricardo became agitated because his phone charger was missing. When she found it for him, he insisted it wasn’t the same one.

Rulennis knew her brother was in crisis and needed psychiatric care. But she also knew from experience that there were few emergency resources available for Ricardo unless a judge deemed him a threat to himself or others.

After talking with her mom, Rulennis called a county crisis intervention line to see if Ricardo could be committed for inpatient care. It was Sunday afternoon. The crisis worker told her to call the police to see if the officers could petition a judge to force Ricardo to go to the hospital for psychiatric treatment, an involuntary commitment. Reluctant to call 911, and wanting more information, Rulennis dialed the nonemergency police number.

Meanwhile, her mother, Miguelina Peña, was back in her own neighborhood. Her other daughter, Deborah, lives a few doors down. Peña started telling Deborah what was going on. Ricardo was becoming aggressive; he had punched the inside of the car. Back on their block, he was still yelling and upset and couldn’t be calmed. Deborah called 911 to get help for Ricardo. She didn’t know her sister was trying the nonemergency line.

The 911 Call

recording and transcript of the 911 call show that the dispatcher gave Deborah three options: police, fire or ambulance. Deborah wasn’t sure, so she said “police.” Then she went on to explain that Ricardo was being aggressive, had a mental illness and needed to go to the hospital.

Meanwhile, Ricardo walked up the street to where he and his mother lived. When the dispatcher questioned Deborah further, she mentioned that Ricardo was trying “to break into” his mom’s house. She didn’t mention that Ricardo also lived in that house. She did mention that her mother “was afraid” to go back home with him.

The Muñoz family has since emphasized that Ricardo was never a threat to them. However, by the time police got the message, they believed they were responding to a domestic disturbance.

“Within minutes of … that phone call, he was dead,” Rulennis said.

Ricardo’s mom, Miguelina Peña, recalls what she saw that day. A Lancaster police officer walked toward the house. Ricardo saw the officer approach through the living room window, and he ran upstairs to his bedroom. When he came back down, he had a hunting knife in his hand.

In video from a police body camera, an unidentified officer walks toward the Muñoz residence. Ricardo steps outside, and shouts “Get the f–k back.” Ricardo comes down the stairs of the stoop and runs toward the officer. The officer starts running down the sidewalk, but after a few steps, he turns back toward Ricardo, gun in hand, and shoots him several times. Within minutes, Ricardo is dead.

After Ricardo crumples to the sidewalk, his mother’s screams can be heard, off-camera. Police made the body camera video public a few hours after Ricardo’s death, in an effort to dispel rumors about Ricardo’s death and quell rioting in the city. The county district attorney has since deemed the shooting justified, and the officer’s name was never made public.

Spotty Care, Dangerous Crises

Across the U.S., people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than the overall population to be killed by police, according to one study from the mental health nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

Miguelina Peña said she tried for years to get help for her son.

Among the problems, the family couldn’t find a psychiatrist who was taking new patients, she said. Additionally, Peña speaks little English, and that made it difficult to help Ricardo enroll in health insurance, or for her to understand what treatments he was receiving. Ricardo got his prescriptions through a local nonprofit clinic for Latino men, Nuestra Clínica.

Instead of consistent medical care and a trusted therapeutic relationship, Ricardo got treatment that was sporadic and fueled by crisis: He often ended up in the hospital for a few days, then would be discharged back home with little or no follow-up care. This happened more times than his mother and sisters can recall.

“There was an occasion where a judge was involved, and the judge determined that he should be released home,” Peña said. “And my question is, why would the judge allow him to go home if he wasn’t doing well?”

Immediate Threats and Escalation

Laws in Pennsylvania and many other states make it difficult for a family to get psychiatric care for someone who doesn’t want it; it can be imposed on the person only if he or she poses an immediate threat, said Angela Kimball, advocacy and public policy director at the National Alliance on Mental illness. By that point, it’s often law enforcement, rather than mental health professionals, who are called in to help.

“Law enforcement comes in and exerts a threatening posture,” Kimball said. “For most people, that causes them to be subdued. But if you’re experiencing a mental illness, that only escalates the situation.”

People who have a family member with mental illness should learn what local resources are available and plan for a crisis, Kimball advised. But she acknowledged that many of the services she frequently recommends, such as crisis hotlines or special response teams for mental health, aren’t available in most parts of the country.

If 911 is the only option, calling it can be a difficult decision, Kimball said.

“Dialing 911 will accelerate a response by emergency personnel, most often police,” she said. “This option should be used for extreme crisis situations that require immediate intervention. These first responders may or may not be appropriately trained and experienced in de-escalating psychiatric emergencies.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness continues to advocate for more resources for families dealing with a mental health crisis. The group says more cities should create crisis response teams that can respond at all hours, without involving armed police officers in most situations.

There has been progress on the federal level, as well. Kimball was happy when President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan congressional bill, on Oct. 17, to implement a three-digit national suicide prevention hotline. The number — 988 — will eventually summon help when dialed anywhere in the country. But it could take a few years before the system is up and running.

Rulennis Muñoz said the family never got to see how Ricardo would have responded to someone other than a police officer.

“And instead of a cop just being there, there should have been other responders,” Rulennis said. “There should have been someone that knew how to deal with this type of situation.”

This story comes from a reporting partnership with WITF, NPR and KHN.

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Facebook Live: Helping COVID’s Secondary Victims: Grieving Families and Friends


Can’t see the video player? View the video here.


The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 246,000 people in the U.S., but it also has left hundreds of thousands of others grieving, and often feeling as if they have been robbed of the usual methods for dealing with the loss. For every person who dies of the virus, nine close family members are affected, researchers estimate. In addition to deep sadness, the ripple effects may linger for years as survivors deal with traumatic stress, anxiety, guilt and regret.

As the holidays approach, millions of people will be experiencing these losses afresh, as well as disruptions to comforting routines and beloved traditions.

Judith Graham, author of KHN’s Navigating Aging column, hosted a discussion on these unprecedented losses and dealing with the bereavement on Facebook Live on Monday. She was joined by Holly Prigerson, co-director of the Center for Research on End-of-Life Care at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, and Diane Snyder-Cowan, leader of the bereavement professionals steering committee of the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Professionals.

Long-Term Care Workers, Grieving and Under Siege, Brace for COVID’s Next Round

In the middle of the night, Stefania Silvestri lies in bed remembering her elderly patients’ cries.

“Help me.”

“Please don’t leave me.”

“I need my family.”

Months of caring for older adults in a Rhode Island nursing home ravaged by COVID-19 have taken a steep toll on Silvestri, 37, a registered nurse.

She can’t sleep, as she replays memories of residents who became ill and died. She’s gained 45 pounds. “I have anxiety. Some days I don’t want to get out of bed,” she said.

Now, as the coronavirus surges around the country, Silvestri and hundreds of thousands of workers in nursing homes and assisted living centers are watching cases rise in long-term care facilities with a sense of dread.

Many of these workers struggle with grief over the suffering they’ve witnessed, both at work and in their communities. Some, like Silvestri, have been infected with the coronavirus and recovered physically — but not emotionally.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 616,000 residents and employees at long-term care facilities have been struck by COVID-19, according to the latest data from KFF. Just over 91,000 have died as the coronavirus has invaded nearly 23,000 facilities. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

At least 1,000 of those deaths represent certified nursing assistants, nurses and other people who work in institutions that care for older adults, according to a recent analysis of government data by Harold Pollack, a professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. This is almost certainly an undercount, he said, because of incomplete data reporting.

How are long-term care workers affected by the losses they’re experiencing, including the deaths of colleagues and residents they’ve cared for, often for many years?

Edwina Gobewoe, a certified nursing assistant who has worked at Charlesgate Nursing Center in Providence, Rhode Island, for nearly 20 years, acknowledged “it’s been overwhelming for me, personally.”

At least 15 residents died of COVID-19 at Charlesgate from April to June, many of them suddenly. “One day, we hear our resident has breathing problems, needs oxygen, and then a few days later they pass,” she said. “Families couldn’t come in. We were the only people with them, holding their hands. It made me very, very sad.”

Every morning, Gobewoe would pray with a close friend at work. “We asked the Lord to give us strength so we could take care of these people who needed us so much.” When that colleague was struck by COVID-19 in the spring, Gobewoe prayed for her recovery and was glad when she returned to work several weeks later.

But sorrow followed in early September: Gobewoe’s friend collapsed and died at home while complaining of unusual chest pain. Gobewoe was told that her death was caused by blood clots, which can be a dangerous complication of COVID-19.

She would “do anything for any resident,” Gobewoe remembered, sobbing. “It’s too much, something you can’t even talk about,” describing her grief.

I first spoke to Kim Sangrey, 52, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in July. She was distraught over the deaths of 36 residents in March and April at the nursing home where she’s worked for several decades — most of them due to COVID-19 and related complications. Sangrey, a recreational therapist, asked me not to name the home, where she continues to be employed.

“You know residents like family — their likes and dislikes, the food they prefer, their families, their grandchildren,” she explained. “They depend on us for everything.”

When COVID-19 hit, “it was horrible,” she said. “You’d go into residents’ rooms and they couldn’t breathe. Their families wanted to see them, and we’d set up Zoom wearing full gear, head to toe. Tears are flowing under your mask as you watch this person that you loved dying — and the family mourning their death through a tablet.”

“It was completely devastating. It runs through your memory — you think about it all the time.”

Mostly, Sangrey said, she felt empty and exhausted. “You feel like this is never going to end — you feel defeated. But you have to continue moving forward,” she told me.

Three months later, when we spoke again, COVID-19 cases were rising in Pennsylvania but Sangrey sounded resolute. She’d had six sessions with a grief counselor and said it had become clear that “my purpose at this point is to take every ounce of strength I have and move through this second wave of COVID.”

“As human beings, it is our duty to be there for each other,” she continued. “You say to yourself, OK, I got through this last time, I can get through it again.”

That doesn’t mean that fear is absent. “All of us know COVID-19 is coming. Every day we say, ‘Is today the day it will come back? Is today the day I’ll find out I have it?’ It never leaves you.”

To this day, Silvestri feels horrified when she thinks about the end of March and early April at Greenville Center in Rhode Island, where up to 79 residents became ill with COVID-19 and at least 20 have died.

The coronavirus moved through the facility like wildfire. “You’re putting one patient on oxygen and the patient in the next room is on the floor but you can’t go to them yet,” Silvestri remembered. “And the patient down the hall has a fever of 103 and they’re screaming, ‘Help me, help me.’ But you can’t go to him either.”

“I left work every day crying. It was heartbreaking — and I felt I couldn’t do enough to save them.”

Then, there were the body bags. “You put this person who feels like family in a plastic body bag and wheel them out on a frame with wheels through the facility, by other residents’ rooms,” said Silvestri, who can’t smell certain kinds of plastic without reliving these memories. “Thinking back on it makes me feel physically ill.”

Silvestri, who has three children, developed a relatively mild case of COVID-19 in late April and returned to work several weeks later. Her husband, Michael, also became ill and lost his job as a truck driver. After several months of being unemployed, he’s now working at a construction site.

Since July 1, the family has gone without health insurance, “so I’m not able to get counseling to deal with the emotional side of what’s happened,” Silvestri said.

Although her nursing home set up a hotline number that employees could call, that doesn’t appeal to her. “Being on the phone with someone you don’t know, that doesn’t do it for me,” she said. “We definitely need more emotional support for health care workers.”

What does help is family. “I’ve leaned on my husband a lot and he’s been there for me,” Silvestri said. “And the children are OK. I’m grateful for what I have — but I’m really worried about what lies ahead.”


The Navigating Aging column last week focused on how nursing homes respond to grief sweeping through their facilities.

Join Judith Graham for a Facebook Live event on grief and bereavement during the coronavirus pandemic on Monday, Nov. 16, at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch the conversation here and submit questions in advance here.


We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

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