William Richards on Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy and Mystical Experiences
Psychologist William Richards discusses his research on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for dying cancer patients, and the larger trends to legitimize research and use of psychedelics for alleviating suffering.
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Psychedelic Healing and Research
|David Bullard:||I’ve enjoyed our several conversations, Bill, heard several of your talks, seen you interact with students and colleagues, and have learned deeply from your recent book, Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences; it filled so many gaps for me in how we see consciousness and psychotherapy. Plus, this has all been augmented with your articles in tribute to Abraham Maslow and on psychedelic psychotherapy published online in September 2016 in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.
But even more recently, the December 2016 issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology published the results of your study at Johns Hopkins and of the similar research reported by the NYU team, showing very impressive results in the use of psilocybin for the treatment of people with cancer who were experiencing existential anxiety and depression. These two studies have been described as “the most rigorous controlled trials of psilocybin to date.” The issue also includes penetrating commentaries from ten notable psychiatrists and neurologists. As stated by the issue editor:
“All agree we are now in an exciting new phase of psychedelic psychopharmacology that needs to be encouraged not impeded.”
The re-emerging study of psychedelic research really hit home for many with the beautifully written article in The New Yorker by Michael Pollan, “The Trip Treatment,” giving a historical perspective on the resurgence of research and the therapeutic role of psychedelic medicines. I was astonished at how positive it was for such a mainstream publication. Pollan quoted you in it, concerning whether people get an illusory or “real” experience of mystical consciousness. Citing William James, you suggested “that we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by its fruits: does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?”
Can you talk a bit about your research on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and the potential entheogens have to accelerate treatment and facilitate transcendental spiritual experiences?
|William A. Richards:||Well, I’ve been at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine doing research and clinical work for the past 17 years, but I started out in college intending to be a minister. I studied philosophy, psychology and sociology, then completed a first year of graduate studies at Yale Divinity School, followed by a year of studies in both theology and psychiatry at the University of Göttingen. There I naively volunteered to be a research subject and received a drug I had never heard about called psilocybin for the very first time, having heard that it might provide some insights into early childhood. That triggered an awesome and amazing transcendental experience that I wrote about in my recent book.|
I then returned to the States, completed the degree at Yale, studied the psychology of religion with Walter Houston Clark at the Andover-Newton Theological School, and then became a research assistant to Abraham Maslow at Brandeis. After that, I accepted a job at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center doing psychotherapy research with a variety of psychedelics including LSD, DPT, MDA and psilocybin. To further that work I continued my graduate studies at Catholic University to obtain my doctorate and become licensed as a clinical psychologist.
In 2006 our team at Johns Hopkins published our first psilocybin study, utilizing normal volunteers who had no prior experience with psychedelic substances, and the results were impressive.
We found that 58% of the 36 volunteers rated the experience of the psilocybin session as among the five most personally meaningful experiences of their lives.We found that 58% of the 36 volunteers rated the experience of the psilocybin session as among the five most personally meaningful experiences of their lives, and 67% rated it among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives, with 11% and 17%, respectively indicating that it was the single most meaningful experience, and the single most spiritually significant experience. A follow-up study, published in 2008, indicated that attitudinal and behavioral changes were sustained.
Most recently, our study with cancer patients showed psilocybin produced large and significant decreases in clinician-rated and self-rated measures of depression, anxiety or mood disturbance, and increases in measures of quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance, and optimism. These effects were sustained at 6 months. The study at NYU showed similarly robust results.
So what comes to mind is a growing awareness that this field may really become mainstream. In mid-October I was at a conference in Victoria, British Columbia, with 150 really bright, young mental health professionals and boy they are serious about what needs to be done practically to change the laws in Canada so therapists who are properly trained can use psilocybin and other entheogens in their practices. They’re not thinking 50 years from now, they’re thinking five years or sooner. And why not?
And then in early December in San Francisco, you observed the ceremony for 41 therapists and medical personnel who completed an exciting new eight-month training program, the “Certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies and Research,” directed by Janis Phelps at the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS), where I consult and teach as well.
The program is groundbreaking and so important, since multicenter, phase 3 clinical trials are about to be funded for the use of psychotherapy using psilocybin for end-of-life issues and with MDMA for PTSD. Research also continues with psychedelic substances for treatment-resistant depression, alcohol, cocaine, narcotic and nicotine addictions and social anxiety. The CIIS certificate program will provide wonderfully aware and trained personnel to participate as the guides in this important research, both in the US and in other countries. ... Continue Reading Interview >>
© 2017 William A. Richards and David Bullard
William (Bill) Richards, PhD, has had a private practice in psychotherapy since 1976, and is a psychologist in the Psychiatry Department of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Bayview Medical Center, where for the past 17 years he has participated in the design and implementation of research projects with psychedelic medicines. His graduate degrees include a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, a Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Andover-Newton Theological School, and a Ph.D. from Catholic University. Richards studied with Abraham Maslow at Brandeis University and with Hanscarl Leuner at Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, where his involvement with psilocybin research originated in 1963. Richards first published his findings in the Journal of Religion and Health in 1996 in an article coauthored with Walter Pahnke titled, ‘‘Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism.” His highly acclaimed book, Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) has been called “…the most comprehensive overview of the actual use of psychedelics in psychotherapy and of the transformative power of mystical experiences” (Torsten Passie, MD, PhD Hannover Medical School). Research results of his most recent studies into psilocybin treatment for existential anxiety in cancer patients was reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, December 2016. He has also authored a tribute to Abraham Maslow together with a report of his 25 years of doing psychedelic therapy research for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, September 2016.David Bullard, Ph.D., David has had a private practice of individual psychotherapy and couples therapy in San Francisco since 1976. He is a clinical professor in departments of medicine and psychiatry and a member of the professional advisory group of Spiritual Care Services at the University of California, San Francisco, and is a consultant for the Symptom Management Service (outpatient palliative care) at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Cancer Center. His latest professional publication is the chapter “Sexual Problems” (co-authored with the late Harvey Caplan, M.D., and with Christine Derzko, M.D.) in Behavioral Medicine: A Guide for Clinical Practice, 4th edition (2014; McGraw-Hill). He has previously published interviews for psychotherapy.net with Allan Schore, Ph.D.; Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.; Mark Epstein, M.D.; Ida Gorbis, Ph.D.; George Silberschatz, Ph.D.; and Lonnie Barbach, Ph.D.; and also has written about conversations with Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, Ph.D.
CE credits: 2
- Describe the research on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy from the 60s up to the present moment.
- Understand some of the legal and ethical roadblocks to further research.
- Learn about the influence of psilocybin sessions on healing in the therapeutic relationship.
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