Whether personal use of psychedelics is appropriate among psychedelic therapists, a new study finds that it may be common. The findings were published in the journal Psychedelic Medicine.
Experiential learning is common in psychotherapy. Psychedelic therapy is a practice that uses psychedelics such as psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Some contend that having personal experience with psychedelics is essential to understanding the effects of these substances and being an effective psychedelic therapist, although there are no data that support this contention, psychedelics remain Schedule I controlled substances, and use outside of approved research settings is illegal in the US, UK, and elsewhere.
Jacob Aday, PhD, from the University of California, San Francisco, and co-authors surveyed psychedelic therapists involved in a trial of psilocybin to treat major depressive disorder. The vast majority of the respondents reported personal experience using psychedelic compounds.
The study revealed that experiential learning is prevalent in psychotherapy, but not in psychiatry. This is a significant finding since psychedelic therapy combines two distinct traditions. The majority of psychedelic therapists who participated in the study were White, female, and had doctoral degrees. Almost all of them had personal experience with at least one serotonergic psychedelic, with psilocybin being the most commonly used. The median number of uses was between 2-10, with the median time since the last use being 6–12 months before the survey. Participants reported various reasons for using psychedelics, such as personal development, spiritual growth, fun, and curiosity. All respondents expressed positive views about the effectiveness of psilocybin therapy.
The study is limited by a low response rate and a lack of diversity among participants. Future research is needed to address these limitations as well as to identify whether personal experience with psychedelics contributes to therapists’ competency or introduces bias to the field. Nonetheless, these findings are the first to delineate the personal use of psychedelics among professionals and can inform a pressing debate in the field.
Psychedelic therapy is an emerging field that has shown promise in treating a range of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. As the field grows, there has been an increasing debate over whether personal experience with psychedelics is necessary for therapists to be effective in their work. Some argue that personal experience can help therapists empathise with their clients and better understand the effects of the drugs they are administering. Others argue that personal use can introduce bias and potentially compromise the integrity of the therapy.
The authors of this study acknowledge that there are no data to support the contention that personal experience with psychedelics is necessary to be an effective psychedelic therapist. Nonetheless, they note that experiential learning is common in psychotherapy and that many psychedelic therapists do have personal experience with these compounds.
It is worth noting that researchers and clinicians must keep a vigilant eye on the past to inform the future. Timothy Leary’s personal use and exuberance led some to doubt his scientific rigour and infamously contributed to his dismissal at Harvard University in the 1960s. Today, personal use among professionals continues to affect the public’s perception of one’s work and will be an area that must be carefully navigated as the field increasingly enters the public eye. Given the high stakes and hope being invested into the field, it is a duty for professionals to maintain a high level of clinical equipoise and allow no exceptions to standards for research or clinical care.
Although experiential learning is valued across many professional disciplines, including psychotherapy, it is not in physician training and there are distinct concerns that must be taken into consideration in the context of psychedelic therapy. Personal experience with psychedelics may offer valuable insights and perspectives for therapists, but it is crucial to approach this aspect of training with caution and ensure that it does not compromise the safety and ethical standards of psychedelic therapy.
The study sheds light on an emerging controversy in the field of psychedelic therapy and highlights the need for further research and dialogue to address these issues. While personal experience with psychedelics appears to be common among psychedelic therapists, its role in therapist competency and potential biases must be carefully examined. As the field continues to evolve, it will be essential for professionals to uphold the highest standards of clinical rigour and maintain a commitment to advancing our understanding of psychedelic therapy.