A recent study sheds light on how mental health professionals perceive an emerging form of treatment known as psychedelic-assisted therapy (PAT). The findings reveal intriguing variations in the attitudes and beliefs of psychologists, clinical social workers, and psychiatrists about this innovative approach to mental health care. The research was published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies.
Psychedelic drugs have long been associated with counterculture movements and recreational use. However, in recent years, they’ve made a comeback in a very different context – mental health treatment. Psychedelic-assisted therapy, which combines psychotherapy with the controlled use of substances like psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and MDMA (known as “molly”), has shown promise in treating conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction.
“As psychedelic-assisted therapies (PAT) move toward FDA approval, we were interested in understanding how attitudes and beliefs about PAT varied among the professionals expected to be involved in treatment rollout and administration,” explained study author Stacey Bradbury Armstrong, a senior researcher at the Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education at The Ohio State University
“More specifically, we wanted to assess how much social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists were ‘on the same page’ regarding the acceptability of this treatment approach. Having a workforce that is aligned in their attitudes and beliefs around this treatment will be essential, especially as we near the expected and highly anticipated FDA approval of MDMA- and psilocybin-assisted therapies for PTSD and major depressive disorders.”
The study analyzed data from three separate surveys involving these mental health professionals. The participants included psychologists, clinical social workers, and psychiatrists, each providing their unique perspective. The surveys collected information on demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and years of professional experience. They also included questions to gauge participants’ attitudes and beliefs regarding the acceptability and perceived effectiveness of PAT.
Psychologists were recruited via a database of nearly 28,000 email addresses. Two waves of recruitment emails were sent, resulting in 366 psychologists completing the survey. Clinical social workers were recruited through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Approximately 7,200 NASW members with a focus on substance use were contacted, and 309 participants completed the survey. Psychiatrists were recruited through various sources, including marketing firms and professional networks. A total of 181 psychiatrists completed the survey.
“Generally speaking, mental health professionals (i.e., social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists) were not aligned in their attitudes and beliefs about PAT,” Armstrong told PsyPost. “Significant differences were observed between at least two professions in terms of understanding PAT, the acceptability of the treatment, how reasonable the approach is, and the belief that PAT would lead to permanent changes.”
Psychiatrists demonstrated a significantly better understanding of PAT compared to social workers. Psychologists expressed significantly higher levels of acceptability for PAT compared to social workers. Psychologists considered PAT significantly more reasonable than both social workers and psychiatrists.
Social workers were more likely to perceive disadvantages in PAT compared to both psychologists and psychiatrists. Psychologists and psychiatrists were more inclined to believe that PAT could lead to permanent improvements compared to social workers.
“I was struck by how many of our items (5 out of 6) were misaligned,” Armstrong said. “The only item that was consistent among all three mental health professional groups was their confidence that PAT would be effective. And the response for that item was rated as “neutral” across all three professions. Certainly, we have much work to do in preparing our workforce for the expected approval of these treatments, as the first FDA approval could come sometime in 2024.”
While this study provides valuable insights into professional attitudes, it has some limitations. It is based on cross-sectional surveys, which restrict the inferences that can be drawn. Additionally, the recruitment methods varied across the three professional groups, which might have influenced the composition of participants.
“Like all research studies, there are some important considerations with this study. The data for this manuscript came from three separate cross-sectional studies that all asked the same questions about attitudes and beliefs. Therefore, we are limited in the inferences that can be made, specifically around causality,” Armstrong explained.
“Further, because the data came from separate studies, different recruitment methodologies were used, which may have biased who was able to access the study across studies. Lastly, given the topic of the surveys, those who participated in the studies could have been more likely to view PAT favorably.”
Moving forward, these findings underscore the need for education and training programs in psychedelic therapy for mental health professionals. The lack of consensus and knowledge gaps regarding PAT highlight the importance of comprehensive training initiatives to prepare professionals for the evolving landscape of mental healthcare. Addressing concerns related to logistics, time demands, and systemic support is crucial for the successful integration of PAT into existing healthcare systems.
“It is expected that one of the more difficult challenges to overcome as it pertains to this treatment approach, is the availability of trained providers,” Armstrong told PsyPost. “This study supports the expansion of specialized training programs and cross-disciplinary educational initiatives, as these are needed to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of the treatment when it is approved. Focusing on developing our training programs will support the clinical workforce and allow them to get consistent and necessary training across professions.”
The study, “Differences in attitudes and beliefs about psychedelic-assisted therapy among social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists in the United States“, was authored by Stacey B. Armstrong, Adam W. Levin, Yitong Xin, Jordan C. Horan, Jason Luoma, Paul Nagib, Brian Pilecki, and Alan K. Davis.