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Aussies pioneer psychedelic treatment for prolonged grief

Once shunned, psychedelics are now being used alongside psychotherapy in a groundbreaking study.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 7 mins

Australian researchers are leading a landmark trial of a new psychedelic treatment in combination with psychotherapy for people suffering prolonged and overwhelming grief after losing a loved one to cancer.

The Queensland trial will be one of the first in the world to use psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to target prolonged grief.

Psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in about 200 species of mushroom, has already been approved in Australia for the use in relation to treatment-resistant depression.

The pilot study will investigate whether the treatment is acceptable and safe for people with prolonged grief, specifically those who have lost a loved one to any form of cancer.

The principal investigator at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR), Associate Professor Vanessa Beesley, said reseachers hoped to offer a way forward for people with the debilitating mental health condition, which occurs when symptoms of grief don’t subside after more than a year.

“Prolonged grief can cause really intense and overwhelming suffering, affecting a person’s ability to function at home, work, and in their relationships. It essentially leaves them stuck in that early bereavement phase,” she said.

“We want to investigate whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can bring some relief and help them live with their loss. 

“We’ve been encouraged by other trials where similar psilocybin interventions were associated with rapid and enduring mental health benefits for people with treatment-resistant depression and end-of-life anxiety,” she said.

The trial will see participants undergo three psychotherapy sessions in preparation for one psilocybin dosing session, performed in the presence of a psychologist and nurse. Another four psychotherapy sessions will follow.

The psilocybin dosing day will take place over about eight hours, in a private room complete with a bed. A nurse and psychologist will remain with participants as they lay down, put on an eye mask and listen to music tailored to the experience.

“The psychotherapy sessions after dosing day will really be focused on helping participants process their psilocybin experience and any unresolved grief as well as identifying changes the participant might make to their life following the experience,” Associate Professor Beesley said.

The trial psychiatrist, QIMR Berghofer visiting scientist and director of research at Metro North Mental Health Dr Stephen Parker, said the study was an exciting step for medical research in Australia.

Participation in the trial is open to people who have lost someone to cancer more than 12 months ago and are experiencing overwhelming symptoms of grief.

All participants will go through a thorough screening to ensure they meet medical and psychiatric eligibility requirements. For more information, click here.

What are grief and loss?

Grief is the natural emotional response to the loss of someone close, such as a family member or friend. Grief can also occur after a serious illness, a divorce or other significant losses.

Grief often involves intense sadness, and sometimes feelings of shock and numbness, or even denial and anger. For most people, the intensity of grief eases over time and the episodes of grief become less frequent.

Grief is a process or journey that affects everyone differently. It can be exhausting and emotionally draining. This can make it hard to do simple things or even leave the house. Some people cope by becoming more active.

A person who loses a loved one may always carry sadness and miss the person who has died, but they are able to find meaning and experience pleasure again. Some people even find new wisdom and strength after experiences of loss.

When you should seek help

If you have persistent feelings of sadness and despair, and are unable to experience happiness, you may be experiencing depression. If your feelings are getting in the way of your everyday life, then it’s important to seek help.

For some people, grief might not lessen even after time passes. The grief can significantly disrupt their life, affecting jobs, relationships and how they interact in the community.

You may need to seek help if you:

  • Feel like grief makes it very difficult to do anything.

  • Have difficulty socialising.

  • Have difficulty sleeping.

  • Change the way you eat (lose your appetite or overeat).

  • Experience intense and ongoing emotions such as anger, sadness, numbness, anxiety, depression, despair, emptiness, and guilt.

  • Have thoughts of harming yourself. 

More information about grief and loss in available here

Related reading: QIMR, Health Direct

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