A Psilocybin Renaissance for AIDS Survivors?

by | Oct 19, 2022 | Research

It’s been over 40 years since the first cases of what would come to be known as AIDS were reported. In that time we’ve made incredible progress in both the prevention and treatment of the disease.

However, there are still millions of people around the world living with AIDS, many of whom are struggling not just with the physical effects of the disease but also with the psychological toll it takes.

October is AIDS Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness for AIDS and the challenges faced by survivors every day. Many of them may benefit from psilocybin, according to research.

What is AIDS?

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). When left untreated, HIV can damage the immune system and affect different parts of the body.

AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection. It can dramatically reduce the lifespan of someone who contracts it. 

There is no cure for AIDS, but there are treatments available that can prolong a person’s life significantly. With early diagnosis and treatment, most people with AIDS now live long and healthy lives, but it’s not the case for everyone. 

Existential Suffering & AIDS

A diagnosis of AIDS not only brings with it the physical challenges of the disease but also a host of psychological ones. One of the most common is demoralization. Researchers indicate that demoralization is

“a form of existential suffering characterized by poor coping and a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and a loss of meaning and purpose in life” and “is highly prevalent among patients with serious medical illness (e.g., advanced cancer and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS], etc.) and is associated with high physical symptom burden and poor quality of life”

Research has already begun to explore whether entheogens like psilocybin could help alleviate existential suffering in people with HIV/AIDS. 

Psychological Benefits Of Psilocybin For People With AIDS    

Psilocybin is reported to have several benefits for mental health. Studies have shown that psilocybin and other psychedelic-assisted therapies can ease end-of-life anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Other research is suggesting psilocybin could help relieve existential distress in people with HIV/AIDS.

A study on psilocybin-assisted group therapy involving older men living with HIV/AIDS and experiencing moderate to severe levels of demoralization is published in the journal of eClinicalMedicine. 

The results showed that those who received psilocybin-assisted therapy experienced significant decreases in measures of demoralization after each dose. Impressively, the effects persisted for at least three months after treatment.

This research provides some preliminary evidence that psilocybin could help lessen demoralization in people living with HIV/AIDS.

The group therapy aspect was also considered a positive discovery. Researchers stated, 

“While it was evident to our clinical team that processing experiences of shame in the group setting was difficult for some participants, anecdotally, it also seemed helpful for some to receive validation from other group members that they were not alone with their struggles….several participants reported that they were able to connect quickly with the other group members and that this peer support was helpful in tolerating and making use of the intervention.”

This discovery poses new unique benefits that psychedelic-assisted group therapy may be able to offer patients over individualized therapy sessions.

Overall, these findings suggest psilocybin could be a promising treatment for HIV/AIDS-related demoralization. A finding that is all the more impressive given that traditional treatments for this type of suffering have proven largely ineffective. While more research is needed to confirm these findings, they offer hope that we may soon have a new therapeutic tool to help people with HIV/AIDS live happier and healthier lives.