On November 17, Maria Mangini, PhD, FNP, associate professor of nursing at HNU, delivered a fascinating presentation on thanatology (the scientific study of death and dying) and the therapeutic uses of cannabis.
Mangini opened her presentation by explaining the link between her two lecture topics. She said that cannabis is being used more frequently in palliative medicine, a field that has recently played a more significant role in her scholarship and teaching. Palliative medicine provides relief for patients from the symptoms, pain, and stress of serious illness; as a treatment strategy it is often (but not exclusively) employed for end-of-life care as well.
During her discussion of cannabis, Mangini explained that human bodies possess many natural receptors for the components of cannabis—a fact that makes several of those components ideal for use as anti-inflammatories and for pain relief. Geneticists and other researchers are still discovering new and intriguing aspects of the plant’s make-up and, as Mangini mentioned, much work remains to be done.
The history of cannabis in the U.S. is a fraught one, and Mangini gave an excellent explanation on how the role of cannabis in American society has changed in the last century. The regulation of cannabis in the U.S. began in earnest with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, drafted by Henry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In 1937, the vast majority of U.S. states classified cannabis as a narcotic. As Mangini explained, the longtime regulation of cannabis has prevented researchers from making progress in their study of the plant and its medicinal uses. However, with the decriminalization of cannabis on the state level over the last two decades, Mangini sees cause for optimism—not only because those laws more freely allow the use of cannabis as a medical treatment, but also because they help alleviate other public health issues. “In every state where there’s a medical cannabis law, opioid deaths and addiction have gone down and continue to decrease,” she said.
For the latter half of her talk, Mangini spoke about her professional interest in thanatology and discussed how the field has grown in prominence over the last few years. “There is a current cultural reappraisal of our approach to death,” Mangini said. “And that has given rise to new interest in home deaths, family-led funerals, and green burials.” She explained that demographics can account for much of the recent attention that thanatology has received. “Baby Boomers are confronting the deaths of peers and elders and, for better or for worse, whatever affects the Baby Boomer generation is often where the concerns of society are focused.” Mangini emphasized that public enthusiasm for thanatology can only be a good development. “We are called to understand death and dying in a new way,” she said.
Near the end of her talk, Mangini proposed that HNU build a curriculum that features an interdisciplinary study in thanatology. In her view, the mission of the University dovetails perfectly with the goals of thanatology and palliative medicine. “If you think of yourself as an agent for social change, this is a good area [thanatology] to devote your energy. This is a fulcrum—it will yield a big return and you will make a difference.” She said that she believes it would be feasible for HNU to become the center for a modern conception of ars moriendi (i.e. dying a good death), one that took into account the needs of terminally ill patients and their families.
“Hospice care is not about how we die,” Mangini said at the close of her lecture. “It’s about how we live.”
Mangini will be speaking at the California Association for Nurse Practitioners 40th Annual Educational Conference in San Francisco this March (along with AJ Benham, HNU assistant professor of nursing), at HNU’s Third Annual Nursing Symposium on March 24, and at a California Psychological Association conference on chronic pain this spring.