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A study at University of Alberta looking at mental health therapy using psychedelic research

Posted on 19 January 2022 by Ryan Dahlman

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Psychology student Alexandra Nelson has been fascinated by psychedelic research for years, and is looking for people who’ve used them as part of therapy to share their experiences.

This was the first subject to genuinely interest Nelson when she discovered the topic around three years ago, but she initially dismissed the notion of being able to study it while still a student at the University of Alberta. 

“When I met my current supervisor, I think that that was a big factor in being able to pursue research on psychedelics. I ended up joining a student group, about like, a year and a half ago,” said Nelson. “And through that student group, I’ve met another student who used to be a student of my supervisor, and I was talking to this person, and they’re telling me about the project that they did with my supervisor, and it was about psychedelics. It kind of opened my eyes to the fact that there are ways to study that kind of subject matter in your undergrad.”

While it was out of her reach to be a part of a clinical trial in her undergrad years, said Nelson, she was able to find a way to delve deeper without actually working with the substances through qualitative research, which gave rise to this study.

“Psychedelic integration therapy is something that is completely legal for people to do and it is a really beneficial thing to do, if people are going to do psychedelic drugs now that having therapists who are willing to integrate those experiences is really important,” said Nelson.

While this therapy is something that a professional may offer, what some may not know is that the therapist is largely not present for the actual use of the psychedelic substance. 

“Part of integration is the preparation component where you discuss your mindset in the setting that you’re taking these substances in. And a lot of people like to kind of set intentions for what they’re doing,” said Nelson. “So they have a certain issue that they’re trying to work through, they’ll set that intention or something like that, but a lot of therapists will so teach people like breathing techniques, ways to calm themselves down ways to stay present, things that are going to be beneficial when you are taking psychedelic drugs.”

It’s after the actual use of the substance has come and gone that the therapist steps in, to help the user help integrate the experience and any revelations that come from it into their lives.

“For some people it looks like one session. For some people, it’s ongoing, it doesn’t really stop. It’s one thing to have those experiences, but it’s another thing to actually properly fit them into your life in a way that’s going to make a difference,” said Nelson. “People are going to do psychedelics, regardless of their legal status. So it’s going to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm if we have these kinds of support for people who can help them prepare and then integrate properly.”

The study is primarily conducted through one on one interviews with those participating in the study, to better understand the experiences of those who have attempted psychedelic integration therapy and the impact the attempt has made on their lives. Nelson expects the first stage of the study to be done in April, though this may largely be due to the nature of the school year.

“My supervisor is flexible in that he wants me to come up with a good project. But if I do want to work on it more, he’s happy to work on it more with me,” said Nelson. 

Nelson’s overall goal is that the study will be beneficial to those who have participated, should they choose to read the final product, and to those who are in the field themselves.

“If this project or the final paper falls into the hands of somebody who is actually doing psychedelic integration therapy, and they read it, they think, ‘Oh, this is interesting. This is giving me more insight into what I’m doing as well,’” said Nelson. “That’d be great, too. So I think that overall, if this project benefits anybody in any way, if it piques their interest at all, I think that it’ll be a project that I’m proud of, if that happens.”

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