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Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy to Treat Sexual Abuse Victims

By Priscilla Duarte and Dr Alana Roy

Sexual abuse is a safety and health problem all over the world, affecting people of all ages, socioeconomic and demographic groups; in Australia, 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence and 1 in 22 men were sexually abused, resulting in severe individual and social impacts. In the Mental Health field, it has been a challenge for professionals to properly help those victims, but recent research on Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy is leading us to a paradigm expansion in treatment.

Sexual assault survivors tend to develop a range of chronic psychic illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, problems in social adjustment, sleep difficulties, and addiction. Traditional talk therapy can be challenging or even re-traumatizing for the victims as it’s often difficult for them to talk about the trauma, or even access their own feelings. It can also be challenging to establish confidence and therapeutic alliance with professionals.

Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy has been used to great success in treatment-resistant mental illnesses. By helping the patient to alter their subjective experiences, substances such as MDMA, Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca can make treatment far more effective and create optimal conditions for psychotherapy.

How do those substances work?

MDMA

MDMA Assisted Psychotherapy has been successfully tested to treat PTSD, and it’s already been considered a breakthrough treatment for trauma-related conditions; This is a well-known prosocial drug and has been classified as an “entactogen” or “empathogen” due to its role in producing experiences of emotional openness and empathy, not only towards others but to oneself as well, increasing self-compassion and acceptance.

In a psychotherapeutic context, this wellbeing state facilitates building up a strong therapeutic alliance with professionals, and accessing memories and feelings with a decreased sense of anxiety and fear. Findings suggest that at the same time that empathy is stimulated, and fear and anxiety decrease, the prefrontal cortex is stimulated, improving modulating emotions and thought, facilitating the reprocessing of traumatic memories. That may explain why people can approach their worst memories and feelings with psychotherapists without being retraumatized.

Psilocybin and Ayahuasca

In contrast to MDMA, Psilocybin and Ayahuasca are classical psychedelic compounds. Generally, Psychedelic substances help to access repressed feelings and memories, and in a supportive environment can trigger the release of meaningful and cathartic experiences.

Psilocybin is a substance found in some mushroom species, and it stimulates cognitive flexibility due to its capacity to alter communication among brain networks, such as the Default Mode Network, helping the patient to break out rigid styles of thinking, feeling and behaving, and to prospect new perspectives for the future. The therapeutic use of this substance has shown good results to treat Major Depression, Existential Anxiety, OCD, and Addiction.

Ayahuasca is an Amazonian brew made from the combination of two plants, one containing DMT (commonly Psychotria viridis) and the other one containing MAOi (usually Banisteriopsis caapi), which makes the DMT able to be consumed orally as a drink. The use of Ayahuasca creates a dream-like state in the brain, enabling patients to access liminal sub-conscious content. It has been successfully used to treat depression and it is also a promising treatment for addiction.

Psychedelic Assisted Therapy is building new pathways to future mental health practices, and it’s showing a new way to effectively approach what we consider today as “difficult-to-treat” mental illnesses, including sexual abuse trauma. As such, it’s important that we legalize and regulate these kinds of treatments to make them available to people who are struggling with mental suffering, and who cannot find relief in the currently available treatments.

Find out how you can contribute to make that possible here!

Here is a recording of our webinar held on 22 April and facilitated by Dr Alana Roy and Renee Harvey

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