‘We’re trying to live, yet it’s easier to access medically-assisted death in Canada’

Canadians with mental illness will be eligible for MAiD in five months yet they “will still be denied access to psilocybin”

A B.C.-based non-profit and a delegation of patients and medical professionals from across Canada are headed to Ottawa to advocate for improved medical access to psilocybin.

B.C.-based TheraPsil, which has facilitated psilocybin treatment to more than 130 patients over the past two years, argues those pathways are insufficient. In addition to supporting a landmark lawsuit, the organization is now demanding a meeting with federal health ministers Jean-Yves Duclos and Carolyn Bennett to discuss the “desperate need for medical regulations.”

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After being formally denied a meeting, the delegation plans to hold daily protests on Parliament Hill over the next week, while also hosting public information and media sessions.

“We’re now going to find ourselves in a situation where all of these patients will still be denied access to psilocybin yet they’ll have the right to medical assistance in dying in five months,” he says. “So we’re going to Ottawa. We’re going to be demanding a meeting with the health minister and we’re going to try and get regulations in place as soon as possible so that we can avoid that situation.”

A letter sent to the health ministers earlier this month, signed by patients, doctors and health care workers affiliated with TheraPsil, noted that some Canadians have been waiting for more than a year to receive a response to their exemption requests, which has “felt like an eternity” for those with terminal and severe mental and physical illnesses.

“Those of us who have tried medical psilocybin know that it is a life-affirming medicine and has improved the length and quality of our lives,” the letter states. 

Tracey Smith was one of those patients. She says she worked with her doctor and TheraPsil to apply for an exemption for psilocybin therapy via the SAP to treat dysthymia, or chronic depression, and general anxiety disorder. Since 2016, she has been diagnosed three times with major depression. She has been off work, and not really able to function, for long periods of time, the longest being two years.

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“I guess I was at a crossroads where I knew I couldn’t go on like this,” she tells The GrowthOp from St. Catharines. “I’m 50 and I feel like I’ve lived 50 unhappy years. I’d like it if I can have some happy ones.”

She says she reluctantly agreed to pursue ECT as a treatment, which has a wait time of more than a year, around the same time that the opportunity to work with TheraPsil came up.

“It seems to me to be a far more intrusive procedure,” she says. “The idea of inducing seizures worried me and the idea of taking a natural plant and going through this process that includes pre and post-therapy seemed to make so much more sense.”

With the assistance of TheraPsil, Smith sent a followup letter to the ministers of health as well as her local member of Parliament. She has since been approved via the SAP, and though she says the process was confusing, she is moving forward with the treatment.

“I kind of feel that this is my Hail Mary like,” she says. Health permitting, she plans on being part of the Ottawa delegation.

So does Matt Anderson. Like Smith, his SAP application was recently approved after initially being rejected, with the government citing a lack of ECT treatment.

Anderson, 39, has treatment-resistant depression and anxiety. He says while he is elated to have his SAP application approved, he was also frustrated by the back and forth.

“It comes down to politics,” he tells TGO from Ottawa. “It doesn’t seem that they’re holding up their end of the bargain. We hold up ours. They say, ‘We need you to do this and you need to do that’ and so us, as the patients, we do it. Then they take a step back and they say ‘No, that’s not going to work, we’re going to need you to do this again.’ It’s always a back and forth and it’s frustrating and stressful and draining.”

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Both Smith and Anderson are also in a situation where they have a doctor that is willing to withstand the ongoing paperwork requests. Anderson says he’s aware not everyone has that option.

“I’m very lucky to have my family doctor. Anything that helps her patients, she always supports.”

He adds, though, that it doesn’t feel like what his doctor and other medical professionals have to say about psilocybin is always being heard.

“I don’t like how politics is involved with people’s lives. A doctor knows best. Why can’t it just be left to the doctors? People are suffering and it’s faster and easier to get MAiD. Here we are trying to live and yet it’s taking longer.”

Hawkswell says the delegation’s goal is to get a promise that steps will be taken toward establishing medical regulations this year.

“The minister will ignore this for as long as is politically possible,” he says. “They’ll just let the lawyers at Health Canada continue to fight this case until they have to do something. That’s what happened with MAiD. That’s what happened with cannabis. It’s the unfortunate and sad state of democracy in Canada. They just wait for the courts.”

If things don’t change, it will soon be “significantly easier for patients to access a drug that stops their heart instead of psilocybin,” he says. “And that would be a travesty.”

*Note: Matt Anderson is a pseudonym to protect the person’s identity.

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