Study Underscores Value of Spiritual Health Practitioners in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies

There’s plenty of chatter surrounding the potential of psychedelic therapy today, though it’s undeniable that we are still uncovering the full potential of these natural compounds and the processes that surround their administration in a clinical setting.

A new study points toward the value of spiritual health practitioners (SHPs), noting that they “bring unique and specific expertise to psychedelic-assisted therapy” and underscoring the potential benefits that may come with including these professionals as part of therapeutic teams.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is becoming more prominent to assist in otherwise difficult-to-treat conditions, like treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. These treatments involve the administration of a psychedelic compound, like psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms), ketamine, LSD or MDMA, coupled with psychotherapeutic intervention or support. 

Researchers from Emory University note the prevalence of spiritual practitioners throughout history into present-day practices, though the roles and competencies of these professionals is rarely explored in research. 

These practitioners include those who have traditionally served in settings providing care to patients who share their denomination, though the term has also evolved to more generally describe those providing spiritual support for those of any or no religious affiliation. These roles also tend to require significant training.

Spiritual Health Practitioners’ Insights and Themes

Researchers note that psychedelic-assisted therapy typically includes a preparation period prior to a dosing session followed by an integration period, each meant to maximize therapeutic value and minimize challenges related to the experience. The study adds that SHPs “may have unique, and uniquely valuable, contributions to support the participant’s wellbeing” and help them benefit from psychedelic-assisted therapy.

To further investigate the role practitioners can play in psychedelic-assisted therapy, researchers examined interviews with 15 SHPs who have facilitated regulated psychedelic-assisted therapies. Questions covered an array of topics relevant to the roles of practitioners, like opinions of the importance of personal psychedelic experience, ethical concerns surrounding psychedelic-assisted therapy, spiritual outcomes of therapy and questions surrounding the emerging field of SHPs as part of psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Researchers then applied thematic analyses to their contributions, resulting in seven sub-themes from discussions through all stages of psychedelic-assisted therapy. These themes include competency and training to work with spiritual material, awareness of power dynamics, familiarity with non-ordinary states of consciousness, holding space, offering a counterbalance to biomedical perspective, use of generalizable therapeutic repertoire when facilitating psychedelic-assisted therapies and interdisciplinary collaboration.

The study notes that these themes describe both the unique contributions of SHPs along with the general contributions, consistent with a common skill set shared among clinicians with different backgrounds and specializations (like the use of generalizable therapeutic repertoire and interdisciplinary collaboration).

Integrating Spirituality into Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

“The major themes identified within this study highlight the important training and formation required for SHPs to provide their essential contributions to the interprofessional [psychedelic-assisted therapy] team,” authors note in the study discussion. “All of the identified themes in this study are closely tied with existing competencies that are established foci for SHP training.”

Namely, researchers note that the disciplines embraced by SHPs can be helpful to those undergoing a psychedelic experience, offering a “comfort and familiarity” without judgment for patients.

Researchers also note that SHPs tend to have specialized training and understanding in matters of power, justice, equity and inclusion, often embedded within theological education and their specialized training. Understanding the specific experiences and identities of patients, and how these factors impact their lives, can offer another valuable element of awareness and sensitivity when it comes to psychedelic-assisted therapy, authors note.

“SHPs may also act as liaisons with Indigenous spiritual practitioners in order to enhance clinical practices for the benefit of participants while honoring the historic and ongoing relationships with plant medicines in Indigenous communities,” authors note.

They reference that the study is limited due to its qualitative and retrospective nature, citing that it “cannot address questions of causality or speak to the effectiveness of the therapeutic approaches used by the SHPs.” Since the study also solely relies on interviews with SHPs in legal contexts, researchers also note that it may exclude perspectives of those who have worked in community-based, or underground, contexts.

Still, researchers recommend that training programs and developing certifying bodies take the contributions of SHPs to psychedelic-assisted therapy seriously and that these practitioners be considered among other trained professionals as this therapeutic option grows in prevalence.

“Furthermore, as standards of care are developed, it will be important to not only include SHPs as professionals who can provide [psychedelic-assisted therapy], but to also ensure that other professionals are not neglecting the spiritual, existential, religious, and theological concerns that arise in the course of treatment,” researchers conclude. “Given the potential for FDA approval of some psychedelic substances in near future, these are important and timely steps for the field.”

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