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Therapist-patient relationship pivotal to success of psychedelic therapy – study

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The therapist-patient relationship could matter more than the effects of psychedelics themselves when treating depression, the findings from a new study suggest.

Researchers analysed data from a 2021 clinical trial that found psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, combined with psychotherapy in adults was effective at treating major depressive disorder.

Data included depression outcomes and participant reports about their experiences with psilocybin and their connection with therapists.

The research showed that the stronger the relationship between a participant and clinician – called a therapeutic alliance – the lower the depression scores were one year later.

Lead author Adam Levin is a psychiatry and behavioural health resident in The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

He said: “What persisted the most was the connection between the therapeutic alliance and long-term outcomes, which indicates the importance of a strong relationship.”

Previous research has consistently found that as mental health treatments changed, a trusting relationship between clients and clinicians has remained key to better outcomes, said senior author Alan Davis, associate professor and director of the Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education in The Ohio State University College of Social Work.

David added: “This concept is not novel.

“What is novel is that very few people have explored this concept as part of psychedelic-assisted therapy.

This data suggests that psychedelic-assisted therapy relies heavily on the therapeutic alliance, just like any other treatment.”

Twenty-four adults who participated in the new trial received two doses of psilocybin and 11 hours of psychotherapy.

Participants completed the therapeutic alliance questionnaire, assessing the strength of the therapist-patient relationship, three times: after eight hours of preparation therapy and one week after each psilocybin treatment.

Participants also completed questionnaires about any mystical and psychologically insightful experiences they had during the psilocybin treatment sessions.

Participant depression symptoms were assessed one week, four weeks, and up to one year after the trial’s end.

The analysis showed that the overall alliance score increased over time and revealed a correlation between a higher alliance score and more acute mystical and/or psychologically insightful experiences from the psilocybin treatment.

Acute effects were linked to lower depression at the four-week point following treatment, but were not associated with better depression outcomes a year after the trial.

Davis said: “The mystical experience, which is something that is most often reported as related to outcome, was not related to the depression scores at 12 months.

“We’re not saying this means acute effects aren’t important – psychological insight was still predictive of improvement in the long term.

“But this does start to situate the importance and meaning of the therapeutic alliance alongside these more well-established effects that people talk about.”

That said, the analysis found that a stronger relationship during the final therapy preparation session predicted a more mystical and psychologically insightful experience – which in turn was linked to further strengthening the therapeutic alliance.

“That’s why I think the relationship has been shown to be impactful in this analysis – because, really, the whole intervention is designed for us to establish the trust and rapport that’s needed for someone to go into an alternative consciousness safely,” Davis said.

Levin added: “This isn’t a case where we should try to fit psychedelics into the existing psychiatric paradigm – I think the paradigm should expand to include what we’re learning from psychedelics.

“Our concern is that any effort to minimize therapeutic support could lead to safety concerns or adverse events.

“And what we showed in this study is evidence for the importance of the alliance in not just preventing those types of events, but also in optimising therapeutic outcomes.”

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