Posts Tagged ‘therapy’


Jean Wyatt greets Tic at the Stockdale Residence and Rehabilitation Center in Stockdale, Tex., in April.Credit…Jennifer Kingson

By Jennifer A. Kingson

The 300-pound llamas strolled quietly through the corridors of the nursing home, lowering their heads to be petted by residents in wheelchairs and pausing patiently as staffers took selfies.

“Did you get a bath today?” one resident, Jean Wyatt, asked Tic, a white male llama owned by Zoe Rutledge. (He had.)

Zoe, a high school sophomore, was there with her parents, Jeff and Carol Rutledge, who keep 13 llamas and alpacas at their home here in Stockdale, an exurb of San Antonio. Three of their herd have passed the qualifying exam necessary to become registered therapy llamas, a test that involves being touched by strangers and remaining impassive when people nearby start arguing.

“You look for the ones that are mellow and calm,” said Zoe, explaining how her family chose the animals they take to assisted living facilities, nursing and veterans’ homes, rehabilitation centers and walk-a-thons for groups like the Down Syndrome Association of South Texas.

Llamas and alpacas — popular in TV commercials, as toys and on all manner of apparel — are simultaneously growing more common in therapeutic settings. While a handful are registered with Pet Partners, a national nonprofit clearinghouse for therapy animals, most are simply family farm pets whose owners take them to hospitals, college campuses and senior centers to ease people’s stress.

The novelty factor is a big part of the appeal, along with the creatures’ big-eyed, empathetic gaze. Among the animals that biologists refer to as charismatic megafauna — tigers, elephants, giant pandas and the like — llamas, which are not endangered, are among the few that people can safely hug.

“For some people, dogs are a little too much, or they’ve had a bad experience with them,” said Niki Kuklenski, a longtime llama breeder in Bellingham, Wash., who was one of the first to use the animals for therapeutic purposes. She said that her llamas, especially a female named Flight, “will read people. So when she goes into a setting where someone’s really animated and excited to see her, she’ll put her head down for a hug.”

But if someone seems apprehensive, “Flight will stand stock still,” Ms. Kuklenski said. “She is very cool.”

At Pet Partners, 94 percent of the registered therapy animals are dogs, but there are 20 llamas and alpacas in the mix, said Elisabeth Van Every, a spokeswoman for the group. (Most are llamas, which are much larger than alpacas and typically far friendlier to humans.) People who register their animals are covered under Pet Partners’ insurance for the duration of their therapy visits, and must abide by strict rules about health, grooming and working conditions. No animal may work more than two hours a day, and handlers must be aware of any signs of fatigue or annoyance.


Carol Rutledge, left, says her llamas have a sixth sense about people who are needy or frail.Credit…Jennifer Kingson

Llama owners will tell you that their pets have a sixth sense about people who are needy, ill or frail. Carol Rutledge says that her therapy llama, whose name is Knock, will walk voluntarily to the bedside of a hospice patient and stand in silence while the patient reaches for him. “It wrenches at your heart,” she said. “It’s taken me several visits to be able to get through it without getting emotional.”

Mona Sams, an occupational therapist in Roanoke, Va., has eight llamas and five alpacas at her practice, which serves children with autism and other disorders, as well as adults with developmental disabilities. One patient is a girl with severe cerebral palsy and seizures who comes twice a week. “I have one llama,” — named Woolly — “who literally sits there with her for a whole hour, face to face,” Ms. Sams said. “She calls Woolly her ‘counselor,’ and she will spend the first part of the hour telling Woolly what difficulties she’s had, and he just sits beside her for that entire time.”

Ms. Sams is the lead author of what seems to be the only published study involving the use of llamas as therapy animals. The article, published in 2006 in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, describes a very small clinical trial in which children with autism were given either standard occupational therapy or therapy that involved handling llamas. The results “indicated that the children engaged in significantly greater use of language and significantly social interaction in the occupational therapy sessions incorporating animals than in the standard occupational therapy sessions,” the study authors wrote.

Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist and professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University, said that such results are not surprising, though they do not prove the efficacy of animal-assisted therapy. He says there’s a big mismatch between what the public believes — or wants to believe — about the effectiveness of therapy animals and what scientific studies show.


Tic walks down the hall at the Stockdale Residence and Rehabilitation Center.

“The evidence for the short-term, probably transient, effects of interacting with animals in nursing homes or for autistic kids is quite good — petting a dog, or interacting with a llama, stress levels go down,” Dr. Herzog said. “But when we think of therapy, we think about long-term treatment, and I think the evidence for that is mixed.”

In Ms. Sams’s llama study, for example, he said, the children who got the standard therapy were doing “boring stuff” compared with the children who got to play with llamas. “I have no objection to that llama study, if it makes the kids feel better for a time, but I wouldn’t call it therapy,” said Dr. Herzog, author of the animal ethics book “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.”

He also pointed out that many people who research the human-animal bond are what he calls “true believers,” eager to validate the positive influence of pets and emotional support animals. “As an animal lover myself, I really wanted to believe it too,” Dr. Herzog said, adding that his research led him to a different conclusion.

Llama therapy is certainly not for everyone. While llamas are gentle creatures that seldom spit at humans, some people find their large stature intimidating or get spooked at seeing livestock indoors. On the flip side, some llamas aren’t cut out for the job: The two notorious runaway llamas that escaped onto a highway near Phoenix in 2015 had bolted from a visit to an assisted-living residence.


Knock and Tic join residents at the Stockdale Residence and Rehabilitation Center.

When two of the Rutledge family’s three therapy llamas — Tic and Knock — arrived at the Stockdale Residence and Rehabilitation Center for a regular visit, Bill Smallwood, a resident who is disabled from a motorcycle accident, accepted a small brush from Zoe and began grooming her llama. Mr. Smallwood is nonverbal, she said, but when the llamas are there, he will murmur and make word-like noises.

This summer, for a science competition for 4-H Club, Zoe compared the blood pressure readings of three of the nursing home’s residents, including Mr. Smallwood and Ms. Wyatt, before and after the llamas visited. Her hypothesis proved correct: Most of the time, their blood pressure was lower after the llamas left, and, observationally, they seemed happier.

Bobbie West, the nursing home’s activities director, said she kept it secret when the llamas were scheduled to visit, lest staff and residents get too excited. “They love the llamas,” she said. “One lady, she can be in the foulest of moods, and when the llamas come, she just gets a whole new aura to her.”

by Nicola Davies, PhD

Robots are infiltrating the field of psychiatry, with experts like Dr Joanne Pransky of the San Francisco Bay area in California advocating for robots to be embraced in the medical field. In this article, Dr Pransky shares some examples of robots that have shown impressive psychiatric applications, as well as her thoughts on giving robots the critical role of delivering healthcare to human beings.

Meet the world’s first robotic psychiatrist

Dr Pransky, who was named the world’s first “robotic psychiatrist” because her patients are robots, said, “In 1986, I said that one day, when robots are as intelligent as humans, they would need assistance in dealing with humans on a day-to-day basis.” She imagines that in the near future it will be normal for families to come to a clinic with their robot to help the robot deal with the emotions it develops as a result of interacting with human beings. She also believes that having a robot as part of the family will reshape human family dynamics.

While Dr Pransky’s expertise may sound like science fiction to some, it illustrates just how interlaced robotics and psychiatry are becoming. With 32 years of experience in robotics, she said technology has come a long way, “to the point where robots are used as therapeutic tools.”

Robots in psychiatry

Dr Pransky cites some cases of robots that have been developed to help people with psychiatric health needs. One example is Paro, a robotic baby harp seal developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), one of the largest public research organizations in Japan. Paro is used in the care of elderly people with dementia, Alzheimer disease, and other mental conditions.1 It has an appealing physical appearance that helps create a calming effect and encourages emotional responses from people. “The designers found that Paro enhances social interaction and communication. Patients can hold and pet the fur-covered seal, which is equipped with different tactile sensors. The seal can also respond to sounds and learn names, including its own,” said Dr Pransky. In 2009, Paro was certified as a type of neurologic therapeutic device by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Mabu, which is being developed by the patient care management firm Catalia Health in San Francisco, California, is another example. Mabu is a voice-activated robot designed to provide cognitive behavioral therapy by coaching patients on their daily health needs and sending health data to medical professionals.2 Dr Pransky points out that the team developing Mabu is composed of experts in psychiatry and robotics.

Then there is ElliQ, which was developed by Intuition Robotics in San Francisco to provide a social companion for the elderly. ElliQ is powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to provide personalized advice to senior patients regarding activities that can help them stay engaged, active, and mentally sharp.3 It also provides a communication channel between elderly patients and their loved ones.

Beside small robot assistants, however, robotics technology is also integrated into current medical devices, such as Axilum Robotics (Strasbourg, France) TMS-Robot, which assists with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS is a painless, non-invasive brain stimulation technique performed in patients with major depression and other neurologic diseases.4 TMS is usually performed manually, but the TMS-robot automates the procedure, providing more accuracy for patients while saving the operator from performing a repetitive and painful task.

Chatbots are another way in which robotics technology is providing care to psychiatric patients. Using AI and a conversational user interface, chatbots interact with individuals in a human-like manner. For example, Woebot (Woebot Labs, Inc, San Francisco), which runs in Facebook Messenger, converses with users to monitor their mood, make assessments, and recommend psychological treatments.5

Will robots replace psychiatrists?

Robotics has started to become an integral part of mental health treatment and management. Yet critics say there are potential negative side-effects and safety issues in incorporating robotics technology too far into human lives. For instance, over-reliance on robots may have social and legal implications, as well as encroaching on human dignity.6 These issues can be distinctly problematic in the field of psychiatry, in which patients share highly emotional and sensitive personal information. Dr Pransky herself has worked on films such as Ender’s Game and Eagle Eye, which have presented the risks to humans of robots with excessive control and intelligence.

However, Dr Pransky points out that robots are meant to supplement, not supplant, and to facilitate physicians’ work, not replace them. “I think there will be therapeutic success for robotics, but there’s nothing like the understanding of the human experience by a qualified human being. Robotics should extend and augment what a psychiatrist can do, she said. “It’s not the technology I would worry about but the people developing and using it. Robotics needs to be safe, so we have to design safe,” she adds, explaining that emotional and psychological safety should be key components in the design.

Who stands to benefit from robotics in psychiatry?

Dr Pransky explains that robots can help address psychiatric issues that a psychiatrist may be unable to with traditional techniques and tools: “The greatest benefit of robotics use will be in filling gaps. For example, for people who are not comfortable or available to talk about their problems with another human being, a robotic tool can be a therapeutic asset or a diagnostic tool.”

An interesting example of a robot that could be used to fill gaps in psychiatric care is the robot used in BlabDroid, a 2012 documentary created by Alex Reben at the MIT Media Lab for his Master’s thesis. It was the first documentary ever filmed and directed by robots. The robot interviewed strangers on the streets of New York City7 and people surprisingly opened up to the robot. “Some humans are better off with something they feel is non-threatening,” said Dr Pransky.

https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/practice-management/the-robot-will-see-you-now-the-increasing-role-of-robotics-in-psychiatric-care/article/828253/2/


Synthetic psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms, has been administered to cancer patients in a study at New York University. Researcher Anthony Bossis says many subjects report decreased depression and fear of death after their session. Although some patients do not report persistent positive feelings, none report persistent adverse effects. Photo: Bossis, NYU.

By John Horgan

Bossis, a psychologist at New York University, belongs to an intrepid cadre of scientists reviving research into psychedelics’ therapeutic potential. I say “reviving” because research on psychedelics thrived in the 1950s and 1960s before being crushed by a wave of anti-psychedelic hostility and legislation.

Psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline are still illegal in the U.S. But over the past two decades, researchers have gradually gained permission from federal and other authorities to carry out experiments with the drugs. Together with physicians Stephen Ross and Jeffrey Guss, Bossis has tested the potential of psilocybin—the primary active ingredient of “magic mushrooms”–to alleviate anxiety and depression in cancer patients.

Journalist Michael Pollan described the work of Bossis and others in The New Yorker last year. Pollan said researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins had overseen 500 psilocybin sessions and observed “no serious adverse effects.” Many subjects underwent mystical experiences, which consist of “feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy,” as well as the conviction that you have discovered “an objective truth about reality.”

Pollan’s report was so upbeat that I felt obliged to push back a bit, pointing out that not all psychedelic experiences—or mystical ones–are consoling. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James emphasized that some mystics have “melancholic” or “diabolical” visions, in which ultimate reality appears terrifyingly alien and uncaring.

Taking psychedelics in a supervised research setting doesn’t entirely eliminate the risk of a bad trip. That lesson emerged from a study in the early 1990s by psychiatrist Rick Strassman, who injected dimethyltryptamine, DMT, into human volunteers.

From 1990 to 1995, Strassman supervised more than 400 DMT sessions involving 60 subjects. Many reported dissolving blissfully into a radiant light or sensing the presence of a loving god. But 25 subjects had “adverse effects,” including terrifying hallucinations of “aliens” that took the shape of robots, insects or reptiles. (For more on Strassman’s study, see this link: https://www.rickstrassman.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=61&Itemid=60

Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD’s powers in 1943 and later synthesized psilocybin, sometimes expressed misgivings about psychedelics. When I interviewed him in 1999, he said psychedelics have enormous scientific, therapeutic and spiritual potential. He hoped someday people would take psychedelics in “meditation centers” to awaken their religious awe.

Yet in his 1980 memoir LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann confessed that he occasionally regretted his role in popularizing psychedelics, which he feared represent “a forbidden transgression of limits.” He compared his discoveries to nuclear fission; just as fission threatens our fundamental physical integrity, so do psychedelics “attack the spiritual center of the personality, the self.”

I had these concerns in mind when I attended a recent talk by Bossis near New York University. A large, bearded man who exudes warmth and enthusiasm, Bossis couldn’t reveal details of the cancer-patient study, a paper on which is under review, but he made it clear that the results were positive.

Many subjects reported decreased depression and fear of death and “improved well-being” after their session. Some called the experience among the best of their lives, with spiritual implications. An atheist woman described feeling “bathed in God’s love.”

Bossis said psychedelic therapy could transform the way people die, making the experience much more meaningful. He quoted philosopher Victor Frankl, who said, “Man is not destroyed by suffering. He is destroyed by suffering without meaning.”

During the Q&A, I asked Bossis about bad trips. Wouldn’t it be awful, I suggested, if a dying patient’s last significant experience was negative? Bossis said he and his co-researchers were acutely aware of that risk. They minimized adverse reactions by managing the set (i.e., mindset, or expectations, of the subject) and setting (context of the session).

First, they screen patients for mental illness, eliminating those with, say, a family history of schizophrenia. Second, the researchers prepare patients for sessions, telling them to expect and explore rather than suppressing negative emotions, such as fear or grief. Third, the sessions take place in a safe, comfortable room, which patients can decorate with personal items, such as photographs or works of art. A researcher is present during sessions but avoids verbal interactions that might distract the patient from her inner journey. Patients and researchers generally talk about sessions the following day.

These methods seem to work. Some patients, to be sure, became frightened or melancholy. One dwelled on the horrors of the Holocaust, which had killed many members of his family, but he found the experience meaningful. Some patients did not emerge from their sessions with persistent positive feelings, Bossis said, but none reported persistent adverse effects.

Bossis has begun a new study that involves giving psilocybin to religious leaders, such as priests and rabbis. His hope is that these subjects will gain a deeper understanding of the mystical roots of their faiths.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/psychedelic-therapy-and-bad-trips/

By Suzanne Allard Levingston

With her hair pulled back and her casual office attire, Ellie is a comforting presence. She’s trained to put patients at ease as she conducts mental health interviews with total confidentiality.

She draws you into conversation: “So how are you doing today?” “When was the last time you felt really happy?” She notices if you look away or fidget or pause, and she follows up with a nod of encouragement or a question: “Can you tell me more about that?”

Not bad for an interviewer who’s not human.

Ellie is a virtual human created by scientists at the University of Southern California to help patients feel comfortable talking about themselves so they’ll be honest with their doctors. She was born of two lines of findings: that anonymity can help people be more truthful and that rapport with a trained caregiver fosters deep disclosure. In some cases, research has shown, the less human involvement, the better. In a 2014 study of 239 people, participants who were told that Ellie was operating automatically as opposed to being controlled by a person nearby, said they felt less fearful about self-disclosure, better able to express sadness and more willing to disclose.

Getting a patient’s full story is crucial in medicine. Many technological tools are being used to help with this quest: virtual humans such as Ellie, electronic health records, secure e-mail, computer databases. Although these technologies often smooth the way, they sometimes create hurdles.

Honesty with doctors is a bedrock of proper care. If we hedge in answering their questions, we’re hampering their ability to help keep us well.

But some people resist divulging their secrets. In a 2009 national opinion survey conducted by GE, the Cleveland Clinic and Ochsner Health System, 28 percent of patients said they “sometimes lie to their health care professional or omit facts about their health.” The survey was conducted by telephone with 2,000 patients.

The Hippocratic Oath imposes a code of confidentiality on doctors: “I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know.”

Nonetheless, patients may not share sensitive, potentially stigmatizing health information on topics such as drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems and reproductive and sexual history. Patients also might fib about less-fraught issues such as following doctor’s orders or sticking to a diet and exercise plan.

Why patients don’t tell the full truth is complicated. Some want to disclose only information that makes the doctor view them positively. Others fear being judged.

“We never say everything that we’re thinking and everything that we know to another human being, for a lot of different reasons,” says William Tierney, president and chief executive of the Regenstrief Institute, which studies how to improve health-care systems and is associated with the Indiana University School of Medicine.

In his work as an internist at an Indianapolis hospital, Tierney has encountered many situations in which patients aren’t honest. Sometimes they say they took their blood pressure medications even though it’s clear that they haven’t; they may be embarrassed because they can’t pay for the medications or may dislike the medication but don’t want to offend the doctor. Other patients ask for extra pain medicine without admitting that they illegally share or sell the drug.

Incomplete or incorrect information can cause problems. A patient who lies about taking his blood pressure medication, for example, may end up being prescribed a higher dose, which could send the patient into shock, Tierney said.

Leah Wolfe, a primary care physician who trains students, residents and faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, said that doctors need to help patients understand why questions are being asked. It helps to normalize sensitive questions by explaining, for example, why all patients are asked about their sexual history.

“I’m a firm believer that 95 percent of diagnosis is history,” she said. “The physician has a lot of responsibility here in helping people understand why they’re asking the questions that they’re asking.”

Technology, which can improve health care, can also have unintended consequences in doctor-patient rapport. In a recent study of 4,700 patients in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 13 percent of patients said they had kept information from a doctor because of concerns about privacy and security, and this withholding was more likely among patients whose doctors used electronic health records than those who used paper charts.

“It was surprising that it would actually have a negative consequence for that doctor-patient interaction,” said lead author Celeste Campos-Castillo of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Campos-Castillo suggests that doctors talk to their patients about their computerized-record systems and the security measures that protect those systems.

When given a choice, some patients would use technology to withhold information from providers. Regenstrief Institute researchers gave 105 patients the option to control access to their electronic health records, broken down into who could see the record and what kind of information they chose to share. Nearly half chose to place some limits on access to their health records in a six-month study published in January in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

While patient control can empower, it can also obstruct. Tierney, who was not involved as a provider in that study, said that if he had a patient who would not allow him full access to health information, he would help the patient find another physician because he would feel unable to provide the best and safest care possible.

“Hamstringing my ability to provide such care is unacceptable to me,” he wrote in a companion article to the study.

Technology can also help patients feel comfortable sharing private information.

A study conducted by the Veterans Health Administration found that some patients used secure e-mail messaging with their providers to address sensitive topics — such as erectile dysfunction and sexually transmitted diseases — a fact that they had not acknowledged in face-to-face interviews with the research team.

“Nobody wants to be judged,” said Jolie Haun, lead author of the 2014 study and a researcher at the Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa. “We realized that this electronic form of communication created this somewhat removed, confidential, secure, safe space for individuals to bring up these topics with their provider, while avoiding those social issues around shame and embarrassment and discomfort in general.”

USC’s Ellie shows promise as a mental health screening tool. With a microphone, webcam and an infrared camera device that tracks a person’s body posture and movements, Ellie can process such cues as tone of voice or change in gaze and react with a nod, encouragement or question. But the technology can neither understand deeply what the person is saying nor offer therapeutic support.

“Some people make the mistake when they see Ellie — they assume she’s a therapist and that’s absolutely not the case,” says Jonathan Gratch, director for virtual human research at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

The anonymity and rapport created by virtual humans factor into an unpublished USC study of screenings for post-traumatic stress disorder. Members of a National Guard unit were interviewed by a virtual human before and after a year of service in Afghanistan. Talking to the animated character elicited more reports of PTSD symptoms than completing a computerized form did.

One of the challenges for doctors is when a new patient seeks a prescription for a controlled substance. Doctors may be concerned that the drug will be used illegally, a possibility that’s hard to predict.

Here, technology is a powerful lever for honesty. Maryland, like almost all states, keeps a database of prescriptions. When her patients request narcotics, Wolfe explains that it’s her office’s practice to check all such requests against the database that monitors where and when a patient filled a prescription for a controlled substance. This technology-based information helps foster honest give-and-take.

“You’ve created a transparent environment where they are going to be motivated to tell you the truth because they don’t want to get caught in a lie,” she said. “And that totally changes the dynamics.”

It is yet to be seen how technology will evolve to help patients share or withhold their secrets. But what will not change is a doctor’s need for full, open communication with patients.

“It has to be personal,” Tierney says. “I have to get to know that patient deeply if I want to understand what’s the right decision for them.”

Psychedelics were highly popular hallucinogenic substances used for recreational purposes back in the 1950s and 1960s. They were also widely used for medical research looking into their beneficial impact on several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression. In 1967, however, they were classified as a Class A, Schedule I substance and considered to be among the most dangerous drugs with no recognized clinical importance. The use of psychedelics has since been prohibited.

Psychiatrist and honorary lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, at Psychiatrist and honorary lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, at King’s College London, James Rucker, MRCPsych, is proposing to reclassify and improve access to psychedelics in order to conduct more research on their therapeutic benefits. He believes in the potential of psychedelics so much that late last month he took to the pages of the prestigious journal the BMJ to make his case. He wrote that psychedelics should instead be considered Schedule II substances which would allow a “comprehensive, evidence based assessment of their therapeutic potential.”

“The Western world is facing an epidemic of mental health problems with few novel therapeutic prospects on the horizon,” Rucker told Psychiatry Advisor, justifying why studying psychedelics for treating psychiatric illnesses is so important.

Rucker recognizes that the illicit substance may be harmful to some people, especially when used in a recreational and uncontrolled context. He cited anecdotal reports of the substance’s disabling symptoms, such as long-term emotionally charged flashbacks. However, he also believes that psychedelic drugs can have positive outcomes in other respects.

“The problem at the moment,” he argued, “is that we don’t know who would benefit and who wouldn’t. The law does a good job of preventing us from finding out.”

From a biological perspective, psychedelics act as an agonist, a substance that combines with a receptor and initiates a physiological response to a subtype of serotonin known as 5HT2a. According to Rucker, this process influences the balance between inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters.

“The psychedelics may invoke a temporary state of neural plasticity within the brain, as a result of which the person may experience changes in sensory perception, thought processing and self-awareness,” Rucker speculated. He added that psychedelic drugs can act as a catalyst that stirs up the mind to elicit insights into unwanted cycles of feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

“These cycles can then be faced, expressed, explored, interpreted, accepted and finally integrated back into the person’s psyche with the therapist’s help,” he explained. Reclassifying psychedelics could mean that the mechanism by which these substances can help with anxiety, depression and psychiatric symptoms could be studied and understood better.

Several experts in the field of drug misuse have disagreed strongly with Rucker’s proposals in this area, and are quick to refute his findings and recommendations. Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), emphasized the fact that psychedelics can distort a person’s perception of time, motion, colors, sounds and self. “These drugs can disrupt a person’s ability to think and communicate rationally, or even to recognize reality, sometimes resulting in bizarre or dangerous behavior,” she wrote on a NIDA webpage dealing with hallucinogens and dissociative drugs.

“Hallucinogenic drugs are associated with psychotic-like episodes that can occur long after a person has taken the drug,” she added. Volkow also says that, despite being classified as a Schedule I substance, the development of new hallucinogens for recreational purposes remains of particular concern.

Rucker has several suggestions to help mediate the therapeutic action of the drug during medical trials, and thereby sets out to rebut the concerns of experts such as Volkow. When a person is administered a hallucinogen, they experience a changed mental state. During that changed state, Rucker points out, it is possible to control what he describes as a “context,” and thereby make use of the drug more safe.

According to Rucker, the term “context” is divided into the “set” and the “setting” of the drug experience. “By ‘set,’ I mean the mindset of the individual and by ‘setting’ I mean the environment surrounding the individual,” he explained.

To prepare the mindset of the person, Rucker said that a high level of trust between patient and therapist is essential. “A good therapeutic relationship should be established beforehand, and the patient should be prepared for the nature of the psychedelic experience,” he suggested. The ‘setting’ of the drug experience should also be kept closely controlled — safe, comfortable and low in stress.

It is also necessary to screen participants who undergo the drug experience in order to minimize the risk of adverse effects. Rucker suggested screening patients with an established history of severe mental illness, as well as those at high risk of such problems developing. It is also important to screen the medical and drug history of participants.

“The action of psychedelics is changed by many antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs and some medications that are available over the counter, so a full medical assessment prior to their use is essential,” he said.

In order to avoid the danger of addiction, psychedelics should be given at most on a weekly basis. Indeed, for many patients, very few treatments should be required. “The patient may need only one or two sessions to experience lasting benefits, so the course should always be tailored to the individual,” Rucker advised.

If there are any adverse effects during the psychedelic experience, a pharmacological antagonist or antidote to the drug can be administered to immediately terminate the experience. “This underlines the importance of medical supervision being available at all times,” Rucker noted.

Psychedelics are heavily influenced by the environment surrounding the drug experience. Rucker is proposing they be administered under a controlled setting and with a trusted therapist’s supervision. Together with a reclassification of the drug, medical research could generate a better understanding and application of the benefits of psychedelics to mental health.

1.Rucker JJH. Psychedelic drugs should be legally reclassified so that researchers can investigate their therapeutic potential. BMJ. 2015; 350:h2902.

http://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h2902/related

Few concepts in popular psychology have gotten more attention over the last few decades than self-esteem and its importance in life success and long-term mental health. Of course, much of this discussion has focused on young people, and how families, parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors can provide the proper psychological environment to help them grow into functional, mature, mentally stable adults.

Research shows that low self-esteem correlates with poorer mental health outcomes across the board, increased likelihood of suicide attempts, and difficulty developing supportive social relationships. Research also shows that trying to raise low self-esteem artificially comes with its own set of problems, including tendencies toward narcissism, antisocial behavior, and avoiding challenging activities that may threaten one’s self-concept.

This division in the research has led to a division amongst psychologists about how important self-esteem is, whether or not it’s useful to help people improve their self-esteem, and what the best practices are for accomplishing that.

In one camp, you have people who believe improving self-esteem is of paramount importance. On the other side of the fence are those who feel the whole concept of self-esteem is overrated and that it’s more critical to develop realistic perceptions about oneself.

But what if we’ve been asking the wrong questions all along? What if the self-esteem discussion is like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon?

New research is suggesting this may indeed be the case, and that a new concept — self-compassion — could be vastly more important than self-esteem when it comes to long-term mental health and success.

Why the Self-Esteem Model Is Flawed

The root problem with the self-esteem model comes down to some fundamental realities about language and cognition that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced all as one word) was designed to address.

The way psychologists classically treat issues with self-esteem is by having clients track their internal dialog — especially their negative self talk — and then employ a number of tactics to counter those negative statements with more positive (or at least more realistic) ones. Others attempt to stop the thoughts, distract themselves from them, or to self sooth.

Put bluntly, these techniques don’t work very well. The ACT research community has shown this over and over again. There are many reasons that techniques like distraction and thought stopping tend not to work — too many to go into all of them here. For a full discussion, see the books Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. For the purposes of our discussion here, we will look at one aspect of this: How fighting a thought increases its believability.

Imagine a young person has the thought, “There is something wrong with me.” The classic rhetoric of self-esteem forces this person to take the thought seriously. After all he or she has likely been taught that having good self-esteem is important and essential for success in life. If they fight against the thought by countering it, however, that means the thought is confirmed. The thought is itself something that is wrong with the individual and has to change. Every time they struggle against it, the noose just gets tighter as the thought is reconfirmed. The more they fight the thought, the more power they give it.

This is a classic example of why in ACT we say, “If you are not willing to have it, you do.”

The simple fact is, we can’t always prevent young people from experiencing insecurity and low self-esteem. Heck, we can’t eliminate those feelings in ourselves. All people feel inadequate or imperfect at times. And in an ever-evolving, ever-more complex world, there is simply no way we can protect our young people from events that threaten their self-esteem — events like social rejection, family problems, personal failures, and others.

What we can do is help young people to respond to those difficult situations and to self-doubt with self-compassion. And a couple of interesting studies that were recently published show that this may indeed offer a more useful way forward not only for young people, but for all of us.

What Is Self-Compassion?

Before we look at the studies, let’s take a moment to define self-compassion.

Dr. Kirstin Neff, one of the premier researchers in this area, defines self-compassion as consisting of three key components during times of personal suffering and failure:
1. Treating oneself kindly.
2. Recognizing one’s struggles as part of the shared human experience.
3. Holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness.

Given this context, the negativity or positivity of your thoughts isn’t what’s important. It’s how you respond to those thoughts that matters. Going back to the example above — “There is something wrong with me” — instead of fighting against that thought or trying to distract yourself from it, you could notice this thought without getting attached to it (become mindful), understand that it is common to all humans and part of our shared experience as people, and then treat yourself kindly instead of beating yourself up.

Does this approach really work better than simply improving self-esteem?

It seems it does.

A just-published longitudinal study that followed 2,448 ninth graders for a year found that low self-esteem had little effect on mental health in those who had the highest levels of self-compassion. That means that even if they had negative thoughts, those thoughts had minimal impact on their sense of well-being over time as compared to peers who didn’t have self-compassion skills.6

This suggests that teaching kids who suffer from self-esteem issues to be more self-compassionate may have more benefit than simply trying to improve their self-esteem.

The question is: How do we do that?

As it turns out, this is exactly where ACT excels.

Using ACT to Enhance Self-Compassion

Knowing that enhancing self-compassion has been shown not only to mitigate problems with self-esteem, but also impacts other conditions including traumatic stress. Jamie Yadavaia decided to see in his doctoral project if we could enhance self-compassion using ACT.

The results were promising.

A group of 78 students 18 years or older was randomized into one of two groups. The first group was put in a “waitlist condition” which basically means they received no treatment. The other group was provided with six hours of ACT training.

As anticipated, ACT intervention led to substantial increases in self-compassion over the waitlist control post-treatment and two months after the intervention. In this group self-compassion increased 106 percent — an effect size comparable to far longer treatments previously published. Not only that, but the ACT treatment reduced general psychological distress, depression, anxiety, and stress.

At the heart of all these changes was psychological flexibility, this skill seemed to be the key mediating factor across the board, which makes sense. After all, learning how to become less attached to your thoughts, hold them in mindful awareness, and respond to them with a broader repertoire of skills — like self-kindness, for example — has not only been posited in the self-compassion literature as a core feature of mental health but proven time and again in the ACT research as essential for it.

Taken together these studies have an important lesson to teach all of us.

It’s time for us to put down the idea that we have to think well of ourselves at all times to be mature, successful, functional, mentally healthy individuals. Indeed, this toxic idea can foster a kind of narcissistic ego-based self-story that is bound to blow up on us. Instead of increasing self-esteem content what we need to do is increase self-compassion as the context of all we do. That deflates ego-based self-stories, as we humbly accept our place as one amongst our fellow human beings, mindfully acknowledging that we all have self-doubt, we all suffer, we all fail from time to time, but none of that means we can’t live a life of meaning, purpose, and compassion for ourselves and others.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-c-hayes-phd/is-selfcompassion-more-im_b_6316320.html