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Description: It is fascinating to see how some ideas, theories and research pop up in the popular press as opposed to in peer review research journals that are not generally read recreationally. Perhaps you have run across articles and related references recently to the potential efficacy of psychedelics in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. There was a related popular press pop up this week in the form of the release of Prince Harry’s autobiography Spare. The largest buzz around the release of the book has been the account it contains of a fight between Harry and his brother William. However, also in the book are account of Harry’s recreational use of psychedelics and his more recent “therapeutic use” of psychedelics such as ayahuasca and psilocybin to deal with intense and long-term grief over the death of his mother, Princess Diana. Do psychedelics help with significant long-term grief or trauma? Good question. Should accounts of their efficacy provided based on the experiences of one person, even a royal person, be taken as clear, reliable, valid, assessment of their efficacy? I very much hope that, as someone with an interest in psychology, your answer to this question is no (even if you do not have a working knowledge of the limitations of the generalizability of single case studies, or personal accounts even by royals). The original question, though, is still a good one and luckily some articles, such as the one linked below, move beyond the case study approach and ask researchers thinking about and working on the question, what their data says or what research they think we need to do in order to start to address the original question of the potential use of psychedelics in grief and trauma treatment. This is a new enough area that I suspect you do not have enough information to form your own hypotheses at this point so, give the article a read and see what may be at play or possible.

Source: What We Know About Treating Extreme Grief With Psychedelics, Dana G. Smith, The New York Times

Date: January 10, 2023

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Article Link (Read or Listen): https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/10/well/psychedelics-grief-mental-health.html

So, what are your take-ways from this article? Aside from the positive personal account of Prince Harry it is clear that there is not a lot of research data on this question. The few studies available that focused upon psychedelics and grief were based on small samples and involved participants who were expecting positive treatment effects AND did not have control groups. Does this mean that this line of study should be abandoned? Well, no, not yet. Initial studies in such areas are often hard to get off the ground (and to get funding for) and as such tend to be of the sort described in the article with small sample sizes and fewer than an optimal degree of experimental control. In addition, there have been better studies on the possible role of psychedelics in the treatment of depression and other disorders so perhaps there are grounds for considering larger studies into the possible therapeutic use of psychedelics in the treatment of long-term grief and perhaps trauma. This is exactly what is meant by the term “more research is needed” but we could add to that the observation that early studies do seem to be producing interesting results.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What did Prince Harry use psychedelics for (beyond earlier recreational use)?
  2. Which psychedelics were discussed in the article as potentially useful in the treatment of extended grief and how might extended or long-term grief be distinguished from “normal” or natural grief?
  3. What sorts of studies are needed next to move our understanding of the possible use of psychedelics in grief and trauma forward?

References (Read Further):

American Psychiatric Association (2022) Prolonged Grief. Link

Anderson, B. T., Danforth, A., Daroff, R., Stauffer, C., Ekman, E., Agin-Liebes, G., … & Woolley, J. (2020). Psilocybin-assisted group therapy for demoralized older long-term AIDS survivor men: An open-label safety and feasibility pilot study. EClinicalMedicine, 27, 100538. Link

Agin-Liebes, G., Ekman, E., Anderson, B., Malloy, M., Haas, A., & Woolley, J. (2021). Participant reports of mindfulness, posttraumatic growth, and social connectedness in psilocybin-assisted group therapy: An interpretive phenomenological analysis. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 00221678211022949. Link

González, D., Cantillo, J., Pérez, I., Farré, M., Feilding, A., Obiols, J. E., & Bouso, J. C. (2020). Therapeutic potential of ayahuasca in grief: a prospective, observational study. Psychopharmacology, 237(4), 1171-1182. Link

Carhart-Harris, R., Giribaldi, B., Watts, R., Baker-Jones, M., Murphy-Beiner, A., Murphy, R., … & Nutt, D. J. (2021). Trial of psilocybin versus escitalopram for depression. New England Journal of Medicine, 384(15), 1402-1411. Link

Gonzalez, D., Aixalá, M. B., Neimeyer, R. A., Cantillo, J., Nicolson, D., & Farré, M. (2022). Restorative Retelling for Processing Psychedelic Experiences: Rationale and Case Study of Complicated Grief. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 832879-832879. Link

Kitchenham, B., Pickard, L., & Pfleeger, S. L. (1995). Case studies for method and tool evaluation. IEEE software, 12(4), 52-62. Link